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Second Person Singular is a story of two men living parallel lives, connected by one woman and the truth surrounding a love letter. One is a successful yet cripplingly insecure lawyer, referred to as “the lawyer” throughout, the other a young man attempting to form an identity. Based in Jerusalem in a split society, both men are Arabs trying to come to terms with their culture and the Israeli perceptions of the Arab culture. The lawyer’s account spans the short time surrounding his discovery. The young man’s story progresses seven plus years to that time, slowly uncovering the core mystery of the letter found by chance- or fate. The lawyer must confront the question, can you ever truly know someone, while the young man lives one answer: identity is created and modeled by a divided society.
The lawyer enjoys reading classics and often stops at a local used bookshop, though always claims they are gifts. He wants to seem sophisticated, a complex created by his insecurities and the stereotypes Israelis project onto Arabs. On this fateful evening, the lawyer buys Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.
After a book club dinner party, which focuses more on proving status and wealth, ends. The guests, all Arab, want to seem elite and cultured, Western to match the Israelis. Retiring to his daughter’s bedroom, where he always sleeps since his young son wakes him, the lawyer starts reading The Kreutzer Sonata. A piece of paper falls out. It’s a love letter. He recognizes the handwriting. It’s his wife’s.
Consumed by blinding rage, the lawyer charges into the kitchen and grabs a knife. All he can think of is betrayal, what neighbors will say and if they already know, humiliated and shamed by a woman he now believes he doesn’t know. Storming upstairs, bursting into the bedroom they no longer share, the lawyer glares down on his sleeping wife, sprawled across the bed, sleeping while she can. He thinks of strangling her and watching the life drain out of her eyes. He thinks of her would-be forever motionless body, of killing her, but anger ebbs away replaced by hurt and confusion. The lawyer then thinks of his daughter finding her mother murdered and he can no longer act, leading the lawyer to feel cowardly and weak, a cuckold husband.
The lawyer realizes there are other ways to kill a woman, however. Divorce. If he could just beat her to court to file, he could have the children, strip his wife Leila of her honor, and leave her destitute. The key is to pretend nothing is wrong, that he never discovered the letter; then take action.
Returning to look at The Kreutzer Sonata, there is a name in the cover. Yonatan.
The story flips to an unnamed narrator, younger and attendee of Yonatan’s funeral.
A social worker who works with drug addicts trying to recover finds his job unfulfilling and is painfully shy. He lives in a dingy apartment with two friends who are never home. He decides to take a job working the night shift as the caretaker of a paraplegic, Yonatan. Completely paralyzed, Yonatan is completely dependent yet has haunted, probing eyes.
A lively, pretty woman in college comes to work as an intern at his office. She likes him and invites him out to a party. After asking Yonatan’s day caretaker to cover for the evening, she sees what he is going to wear. In a motherly fashion, she persuades him to wear Yonatan’s expensive, unused clothes. This is only the beginning of their lives intertwining.
The date doesn’t go well. Feeling uncomfortable in someone else’s clothes, too shy to talk and too awkward to dance, the narrator leaves early and decides that evening to quit his job at the social work office.
As he goes into work early the next morning to drop off his resignation letter, he finds a note from his date, saying she waited for him, had a wonderful time and asked if he would call her. His date was a girl named Leila.
As the story progresses, the lawyer continually vacillates about running to court to file for divorce. He searches for Yonatan, tracking down a man who may be Leila’s lover. He constantly questions where she is, thinks of his revenge and her demise at his hands. The lawyer finally confronts Leila about the note. She denies it is hers, cries, fears his almost insane rage.
The lawyer calls in a favor and has an expert confirm it is her handwriting. After again beginning confronted, she claims she forgot she wrote it since it was such a long time ago, after one date with a guy she never saw again. The lawyer pretends to believe her.
The lawyer and Yonatan’s caretaker continue to live parallel lives.
To occupy the long nights watching Yonatan, the still unnamed narrator listens to Yonatan’s CDs, reads his books, all with ‘Yonatan’ written on the inside cover, and searches the room. He discovers an expensive camera with film still in it, not fully used. During the day, he explores and takes photos. When the roll is developed, the pictures on the camera taken by Yonatan are photos of him hanging himself.
Spending more and more of each day taking photos, focusing on people, this mysterious narrator applies for photography school… under Yonatan’s name. He assumes Yonatan’s identity as an Israeli from a rich neighborhood. He cuts all ties with his mother, his only family. ‘Yonatan’ is accepted into photography school and begins his new life. However, not before Yonatan’s mother Ruchaleh discovers what he has done. Ruchaleh, a distant woman who never goes to Yonatan’s hospital-like room, drinks alone every night working.
His acceptance letter comes to the house, not the P.O. Box Amir Lahab opened in Yonatan’s name. Instead of being angry, Ruchaleh merely hands Amir the letter and prompts him to open it. ‘Well, did you get in?’ as if she knew all along, seemingly omniscient though never in the attic room. At that moment, Amir begins to become Yonatan.
The lawyer discovers Amir worked with Leila when she interned at the social worker center. He finds his ID number and travels to the Triangle where Amir grew up. Calling in another favor, the lawyer learns Amir disappeared. He is determined to uncover the truth.
Yonatan tries to kill himself again by spitting up food, refusing to eat. He eventually must go to the hospital and Amir finally sees Ruchaleh cry. While Ruchaleh and Amir are home alone, she admits her hatred for Yonatan’s room. She always looks toward the ceiling where she found her only child hanging with a kicked over chair below him. Ruchaleh believes this fresh attempt at suicide is a continued act of revenge. Amir feels it was now directed toward him as well since he took over Yonatan’s identity.
Yonatan comes back to the house with a feeding tube, forcing him to live for four more years. Amir, on the other side, begins to finally live. He gets a girlfriend, becomes a son to Ruchaleh, and learns to be more cultural. He also learned what Israeli’s thought of Arabs- horny, unpredictable, short-tempered, primitive and obsessed with honor, especially the honor of their "sisters’ pussies."
Ruchaleh one day told Amir she wanted to sell the house. And that it was time for Yonatan to get what he wanted, death. She devised a plan. Amir would be out. She would ignore the beeping of the oximeter that indicted the breathing tube had fallen out, wait 15 minutes and then call an ambulance. It would be too late. All that was left to be decided was which ID card Amir would give her since he had updated Yonatan’s ID card with his own picture.
When the designated night came, Amir gave his ID card to Ruchaleh. By handing over Amir Lahab’s ID card, Amir fully and permanently became Yonatan Forschmidt. The real Yonatan died that night as Amir Lahab. Amir had taken care of Yonatan for over seven years.
The door bell rang as Yonatan waited in the living room for the realtor, sitting among boxes and covered furniture, Yonatan dead, Amir Lahab dead. He opened the door. The lawyer stood outside
Sayed Kashua was born in 1975 and is the author of the novels Dancing Arabs and Let It Be Morning, which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Kashua writes a weekly column for Haaretz and is a writer and the creator of Arab Labor, one of Israel's most popular sitcoms. He lives in Jerusalem with his family.