The Labour of Life

Hanoch Levin

Illustration by Leif Engström

Night. JONAH and MARGE in bed. MARGE is asleep. JONAH's awake.

J: I'm a lost man. It's a fact,
There's no getting away from it: I'm lost.

How did it happen—I was a lad
And all the world was spread out before me,
Where did it all go—
Slipped through my fingers—all the same
Worn-out questions with worn-out answers.

Only my pain isn't worn out at all.
It's alive, it's fresh, it's here. How can I tell it:
"Dear Heart-ache, that's the way it is,
People live and die, and every single one of them
One way or another misses out on something, I didn't
Invent giving up the ghost or despair,
So please be so good, dear Heart-ache, as to abate, abate..."
No, no, my heart-ache—aches. When I ache,
It's like I'm the first person on earth to have an ache,
Like I'm the only one in the universe shouting:
"Jonah Popoch's life has gone by,
The life of Jonah Popoch has gone...!"

(starts to cry, stifles it instantly)

No, not like that, Jonah, on your feet.
Do something, get yourself out,
Don't just lie there like you're in your grave.

(gets up and out of bed)

Now, be logical: step one—on your feet,
Out of bed and clean up, give everything a good shake.
Lots of dead bodies piled up on this bed,
Thirty years of crap.

(looks at MARGE, giggles)

She's sleeping like there's nothing happening,
Snoring a bit, steady, no doubt dreaming
Of some nonsense...this madness,
Lying together in a double bed, cheek to cheek,
One sobbing his heart out, seeping blood, the other
Skiing in the Alps, grinning ear to ear, and this
Is what we call married life, why it's all
A lie, lies, so first things first
Clear the bed of lies.

(leans over MARGE)

What's this flesh to do with me,
Whistling away in a peaceful doze,
Viewing distant landscapes in her dreams
That I have no part in?
What's Marge to me? How did Marge
Get into my life? Who made it come about
That as a little boy, trailing after my Dad in the street
Already at some future crossroad
There was this strange woman waiting,
That I had nothing to do with
And she had nothing to do with me,
But some invisible glue
Stronger than both of us
Would bind us together forever?

(circles the bed, not taking his eyes off MARGE)

Birds come in spring, disappear in autumn,
Tourists come for a month and go,
Plagues have outbreaks, disappear, everything changes, shifts,
Only one thing in this world is fixed: Marge.
And of all the places in the world she has to be here, in mine.

(drops his head to her ear, croons)

What are we dreaming about, Marge?
Sight-seeing in Switzerland?
Doing a spot of skiing in the Alps
While hubby's up all hours,
Listening to the slow drip
Of a leaky toilet bowl in China?
Watch your step there on the peak, Marge,
Ever heard of a sudden avalanche?
Here it comes, avalanche!

(JONAH turns the bed over, MARGE falls out, screams, and rises, stunned, to her feet)

What, up again already?
Spoiling for a fight in the middle of the night?
Who were you cuddling up to in the Alps?

M: When?

J: Just now, in the dream.

M: I never left the country.

J: Liar! Affidavits! Proof! Where were you hiding? Who did you sleep with?

M: I went down the street to buy a summer hat.

J: At night?

M: In the dream it was morning.

J: Very clever. An alibi for every eventuality.
And who was waiting for you in the hat salon?

M: The owner.

J: Did you do it with or without the hat on?

M: I was looking for a hat! Hats is all they had.
Nothing but a yen for a summer hat
Right on this very street, in the morning.
Even in my dreams I didn't stray far from home.

J: Dear God, what a cow, what a cow,
For the same money you could have dreamed about Switzerland!

M: You wouldn't let me dream about Switzerland.

J: Dear God, what a beast! Even in her dreams
She won't throw off the chain,
God what a cadaver I got!
And I've been dragging this spoiled hunk of meat around
On a chain behind me for thirty years!
Never you mind, any minute now I'll kick the bucket!
You'll be left a lonely bitch, howling all night
With no one to keep you company,
No one living, an armed burglar will break in round daybreak
You'll scream, "Jonah, Jonah!"—and there won't be a Jonah,
Jonah will be lying in his grave, on his tod,
Hands over his tummy, in the dark, like the television's broken,
Waiting for Messiah to come like a TV engineer!

(suddenly dawns on her)

M: I was turfed out of bed! Somebody turfed me out of bed!
The one who stood by me, gentle, blushing
Under the canopy, answering every
Word the rabbi said with a shy, stifled, "Yes, yes,"
He's the one who's turfed me out of bed
Like you throw rubbish out in the bin!

(bursts into tears)

What have I ever done to you? All I've got left
In my life with you is sleep. I didn't
Bother you, didn't make demands,
No demands, I snuggled into
My dream like a cocoon;
What did I do to you
That you deprive me of my summer hat?

J: Now she's crying. They're trying to melt me
With tears. Steady, Jonah! In the veins of
Every man worth his salt
Flows a drop of the blood of Mongol hordes.

(serenades her)

You're weeping, and the days are gone
When your weeping touched my heart,
Nothing, my dear, short of your death
Will melt the ice that's here inside

And a wind at night in the curtain,
Like a white sail, flowing,
And my two shoes, like two ships on the tide,
Call to me: rise and set sail!

You're weeping and I look at you
Like a fly buzzing
Tear a wing off, a bit bored
Heart not wild, not exciting.

And a wind at night in the curtain,
Like a white sail, flowing,
And my two shoes, like two ships on the tide,
Cry to me: rise and set sail!

(starts to leap about suddenly, as if possessed, shouting)

No, no, we won't, won't fall!
Che Che Che! Che Guevara!
Che Che Che! Che Guevara!

M: I hope you're mature enough to see
For yourself that I'm not the problem.

J: You're not?

M: I'm not. I'm the excuse.

J: So who's the problem?

M: You. And you've nowhere to run
Because everywhere you go
You drag yourself behind.

J: You don't say! There's a penetrating insight,
Isn't there? That's a real breakthrough, that is!
(to himself)
Next thing you know she'll suggest I see a therapist.

M: And I really think you should see a therapist.

J: What good's a therapist going to do?
He wants to run away from his wife and all!
Everyone wants to run away, Marge,
And you—in case you hadn't noticed—
Were born to be run away from.

M: You want to go?

J: I don't want to—I'm going!
Peeling off the lime green pyjamas
And setting off on a long journey
What, didn't you know I was leaving you
for good, like a pair of worn out slippers?
Didn't you know these were parting words?

(MARGE starts to cry.)

J (to himself): Now she'll ask me: why?

M: But why? Why? Hang about.
You don't walk out of the house like that
After thirty years without a word.
You owe me at least an explanation.
If I'm doomed to spend the rest of my life on my own,
At least tell me, so I won't be tormented by remorse,
Why? What did I do wrong?

J: Dear Marge, I drained living with you to the dregs
The first night we met.
Yes, we said all there was to say
That night, the thirty years after
Were just fear of getting up to go.
Now, thirty years on, I finally dare say:
Madam, I've no use for you,
But to leave you behind to sigh for a lonely death.
(to himself) Now she'll ask me if there's someone else.

M: You got another woman?

J: (laughs derisively) Another woman! You know what they say:
From one bottom to the other.
All my life, day and night, I struggle with the reek
Of some woman hanging over my head,
Threatening my desire for clarity!

Who are you? A bottom! A bottom that's round my leg
Like a ball and chain! A bottom that's dragged me down,
Narrowed my horizons, crushed my soul!
Understand me—'cause you have to understand a man,
A man is a delicate mechanism!—you can't
Base your entire existence on a bottom. And if,
To start with, the blood still boils
And the bottom's firm, what's gonna happen over the years
When the bottom gets wrinkly? What have you got left
If right from the start there was nothing to the relationship
But bottom, bottom and all the rest
Like beauty, spirituality, that I really craved,
You never played a part in all the length of your days?

M: Beauty? Spirituality? Why didn't you say?
Why didn't you take the trouble to share your thoughts
With me? To me you only talked about herring,
Why didn't you buy the herring, why in a jar, why not
From the barrel, and what about Matjes,
And how come it's pickled, and why no onions,
The herring isn't greasy enough, the herring isn't fresh enough,
The herring's too salty, it isn't salty enough!
Now all of a sudden you throw "beauty and spirituality" at me?

And as it happens I'm also a bit partial to spirituality.
Did I go to college two years for nothing? Try me.
If that's really what it's all about—it's never too late,
Believe you me. Beauty, art, reflection, these things never go out of fashion.
Why don't we start now?
I'll take courses in art history. I'll learn ceramics.
You want nature? We'll join the ramblers.
Go hiking. Say the word. Give me a chance, I won't disappoint.
The kids have grown up, gone,
There's all the time in the world, now,
We'll buy a season ticket to the theatre tomorrow morning,
Ach, theatre, my first love, by the way
What do you hear about that Russian play they're putting on now,
"Seven Sisters"?

J: You're getting it mixed up with the seven dwarves. It's "Four Sisters."

M: Aren't you thinking of the "Four Tenors"?

J: It's four, cow!

M: Four, four! Oh, I'm a cow, I'm a cow! What kind of life
Have I had! Forgive me, Jonah.
Forgive me, junior school teachers, Mum and Dad!
I know I was a cow and led the life of a cow,
But from now on it's all going to be different.
You've opened my eyes, Jonah,
Thank you, thank you, this shock hit the nail right on the head,
Now give me a chance.

J: Shan't. I hate you vulgar and common,
But I'll hate you even more with a veneer of culture and art.
Don't deny your nature, Marge.
You're fundamentally an arse,
Don't dress yourself up as a soul. 'Cause you know as well as I do:
No courses in ceramics and season tickets to the theatre
Are going to bring back what we never had.

M: But we had something good in life too, didn't we?

J: It was a lie, all of it. I lived a lie.
What I wanted—I didn't get:
And what I have—I never wanted.
I was carried along in the current like a dead fish.

M: Jonah, listen, let's live like we used to live
Up till now, what've we actually got to be ashamed of?
When all's said and done, we were human beings, worked hard,
Had children, raised them, didn't break the law—
Everything was legit. If we didn't scale the heights,
Then we didn't, people like us have a place in the world too.

J: Who are we kidding, Marge? Ourselves?
Even if we don't say a word about it
I'll always have in the back of my mind, every single second:
Somewhere life is going on
And I never took part.

M: I don't care what's going on somewhere else!
If my life was a puddle—I put my life into this puddle!
And who's going to have the nerve to tell me I lived a lie?
I lived my life right, never took gifts,
Not from you, not from anyone.
I lived the way decent people live. Worked like a dog.
What was the lie, and who, you tell me, has the truth?


I was decent with you, Jonah, always,
I was decent, and why, now, do I deserve this?

J: "Decent." Yes, you were decent. And I
Was decent too. Two decent people.
Jonah and Marge Popoch—a decent family.
Look where decency got us.
And God's pissing himself. God, it turns out,
Likes gangster movies. And we banked on being decent.

M: I don't understand anything, just don't understand...
First culture and art, now you want to rob a bank?

(MARGE sits down helplessly on the upturned bed.)

J (to himself): Now she's going to threaten to commit suicide.

M: All right go ahead, if that's what you want.

J: Sorry, my mistake. Suicide comes later.

M: I've groveled enough for one night, haven't I?
Though I've not said all there is to say about you:
An over-the-hill man with an over-the-hill old man, in a panic,
What are you going to find out there, and
Who exactly do you think is waiting for you?

But what does it matter now, I can't
Hold you by force, eh? Got no more
Charms left. How long can you give a man
The same noodle soup reheated?

There's a woman involved, that much is clear.
Either you got one already. Or you're on fire to look for one.
There's masses of younger women.
And I've got old. Thirty years I served you
Now Marge—out to pasture.
So many new women born all the time
And all of them push me aside. The world keeps renewing itself,
Fresh colors and laughter, noises, who remembers the old-timers?
The grave—that's all very well, but the empty years waiting for me
Until the grave—how do you bear it?


I'll commit suicide.

J: (aside) Suicide's arrived.

M: It's not that I love you all that much,
But what will I do without you?
And the neighbors,
How will I show my face in the street?
How will I bear the shame? I'll do myself in!
I'm telling you I'll do myself in!

J: Causing a scene after all, eh?

translated from the Hebrew by Atar Hadari