Though it takes place during World War II and the founding of Israel, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s, One Night, Markovitch, revolves around questions of love and loneliness. In this novel, three men struggle to explain and obtain what they really want in life. Zeev loves his wife, but he also wants to be a manly hero. Ephraim loves Zeev’s wife, but cannot have her. And Markovitch himself wants the love of his own wife, but she can’t love him because he refused to let her go. I wonder if the book would have read differently before #MeToo, if I would have been more forgiving of these men. As it is, I have no tolerance for men who behave as though women owe them something because the men had feelings for their chosen women.
Markovitch and Zeev are members of the Irgun, under the direction of Ephraim (who is almost always referred to as the deputy commander). Zeev is better known as a philanderer than a fighter and Markovitch is only used as a smuggler because his face is so unremarkable. But when Markovitch and Zeev run afoul of a butcher in their kibbutz, they beg the deputy commander to send them on a mission. Thus, they are dispatched to Europe to help Jewish women escape to Palestine. The scheme is that they marry quickly, because the British will let couples in, and then get divorces as soon as they land in Tel Aviv. Zeev holds up his end of the bargain. Markovitch, who married the devastatingly beautiful Bella, does not.
Markovitch hopes that Bella will someday forgive him for what he did. As the years roll on, this seems less and less likely. One Night, Markovitch drifts through time. The war in Europe seems like a vague nightmare off in the distance. Zeev and Markovitch do get caught up in the fighting in 1948. Most of the novel, however, is surprisingly domestic given how violent things were at the time. We see babies born and children grow while Zeev, Markovitch, and Ephraim wrestle with their feelings and the women they feel things about. The three men act almost as models about how people can respond to unrequited love. Ephraim soldiers on, a mostly perfect stoic fighter for Israel. Zeev cracks after making a terrible mistake and runs away from his wife’s love. And then there’s Markovitch, stubbornly waiting for an angry woman to fall in love with him.
I’m not sure what to make of One Night, Markovitch other than to say that it’s the opposite of what a romance author would do with the marriage of convenience trope. Where a romance author would have the two leads fall madly in love with each other before the curtain drops, a literary author seems almost bound to go in the other direction. Everyone in this book is miserable and there is no happily ever after. I appreciate that. Markovitch is clearly in the wrong and he should have given Bella her freedom. But because I spent almost 400 pages watching everyone mope around the Israeli desert, I’m mostly left with feelings of uneasiness and frustration. If that’s what this book meant to accomplish, it achieved its goal. If I’m meant to sympathize with the characters in this book, it left me cold.