Are the others called Jews here? On the novel Abahn, Sabana, David by Marguerite Duras

By Rebecka Thor

I spell my name Rebecka, with ck, not cc, although in the late 1980’s I wanted to spell it with cc. Rebecca was like Jessica and Angelica; an American high-school dream. Rebecka was boring, old, biblical, and possibly Jewish. I was named after two Rebeckas, my grandfather’s mother and my grandmother’s mother. The former was called Rivka – the Yiddish and Hebrew variant of Rebecka – who changed her name to Rebecka when she came to Sweden. The latter was also a Rivka/Rebecka who became Regina in anti-Semitic Germany (her husband was given the name Adolf Abraham Jehuda, since it was customary to add a German name beginning with the same letter as the Jewish name). Our names are part of our identities and birthplaces. They convey anything from sex and class to generation and ethnicity.

In Marguerite Duras’ novel Abahn, Sabana, David, one name is missing in the title, or rather; a second Abahn is missing. The story takes place one night in the Jew’s house, and consists mostly of conversation. Abahn the Jew is going to be executed, David and Sabana guard him for Gringo and his party, and another Jew comes to the house to take part in the conversation and the course of events.  His name is Abahn, too. In conversation, the Abahn who is going to die is simply reduced to being called the Jew, while the other Abahn gets to keep his name. Even the title evokes uncertainty about the Jew’s role in the drama; why is he a Jew, and what could this entail?

I see the name-giving as a key to Duras’ text, which is characterised by a lack of nicknames, and the presence of epithets. Duras plays with her characters’ identities and positions in the way she mentions them, meanwhile moving in and out of the conversation to refer to European Jewish history.

In 1930’s Germany, many Jews did not have traditional Jewish names – such as Sarah, Isaac, Noah, Rebecca – so the Nazi regime decided to force all Jewish men to add the name Israel and all Jewish women to add the name Sarah, so it would be easier to identify them as Jews. This was a simple way of ensuring a person’s ethnicity, controlling identity, and one of many steps that were taken towards segregation. Further back in history, Jews did not traditionally take their parents’ surname but used the prefix “ben” (son of) or “bet” (daughter of), followed by their father’s name (the same principle found in Swedish sons’ names). In 1787, Joseph II of Austria issued a new law stipulating that all Jews must have a surname, and that these should primarily be biblical names. The rule was that if a Jew refused to choose a name, or simply did not bribe the officials, they were authorised to choose a name for him. This led to the creation of strange plethora of anti-Semitic surnames, present in Jewish names to this day. A few examples of names thought up by anti-Semitic officials were: Nachtkäfer (nocturnal beetle), Eselkopf (donkey’s head), Galgenvogel (gallows bird), Lumpe (villain, rag) and Goberklotz (fatso). Moreover, it was common, as in Swedish surnames, to take a name referring to one’s place of residence or the occupation of the man in the family.

Duras’ text is permeated with a strong conflict between the given name and the malicious epithet, a conflict that is materialised in the choice of words, as in the shift between “named” and “called.” There is giving and taking of names and identities, and a raising and lowering of the subjects. (The Jew, in a sense, loses his identity when he loses his name). For the sake of clarity, I will adhere to Duras and call the Jews in the text Abahn and the Jew respectively.

“I am Abahn,” says the Jew.

“The one who’s called the Jew?” Sabana asks.

When Abahn comes to the Jew’s house and presents himself to Sabana, he says “I am called Abahn.”

“His name is Abahn too, but they call him the Jew,” Sabana replies. “He’s also called Abahn the Jew, Abahn the dog.”

“And the Jew? The dog?” Abahn asks.

“Yes,” Sabana replies.

“Are the others called Jews here?”

“Yes.”

“And dogs?”

“The Jews…” she pauses. “And where you come from?”

“The same there.”

The Jew, the dog, Abahn, become the Other – the ones called Jews here. Both the Jew and Abahn go through changes. What they are called, their nicknames or insults, and their identities are so disjointed that they are sometimes regarded as one and the same person; that there is only one Jew, one Abahn. They are described in similar terms, as a tall, gaunt man with gray temples, and despite my previous point about the missing name in the title; this could be an indication that they are two sides of one man. It is the sentenced man’s identity crisis; one side defending himself; wanting to understand why he was sentenced (Abahn), while the other side receives his henchmen politely (the Jew). Regardless of whether they are one or two, Abahn is the one who speaks, the one who answers for the Jew. Abahn explains that they are there to crush the unity; they are coming from all over. The Jew has been sentenced for speaking up against Gringo and his party. The voices of Abahn and the Jew blend together and perhaps form an entity that includes not only themselves but the entire Jewish people. In Duras’ film version of the novel, the Jews are three. She explains that she wanted to line up “a wall of Jews”, which could be interpreted to mean that they are “the Jew,” a collective that fills a purpose in the text, rather than an individual.[i]

“The Jew’s life is invisible.”

Sabana asks Abahn, “Are you alone too?”

“Yes, with the Jews,” he replies.

The Jew and Abahn are linked by their name and by being Jews. The Jews in the fictive world of the text are so repressed and persecuted that they are forced together. As a collective they not only share the same conditions but are also kindred souls, they understand one another. If we assume that the Jew and Abahn are two characters, then Abahn has an enormous knowledge about the Jew – without knowing him – since he is also a Jew.

“He is not crying for himself,” Abahn says. “It is a remarkable force that makes him cry for others. He has too much for himself, far too much for him to want to live.”

Sabana wonders how he can know what the Jew is feeling, and Abahn replies, “I am a Jew.”

The Jew’s tears could be interpreted as sorrow for the common history of the collective, as if the Jews were crying over the way of the world, because they are its victims. This frightening picture of the Jews as the perpetual victims is strongly present; a recurring image in religious Judaism, in anti-Semitic and Israeli government rhetoric. But this sorrow also encompasses the actual historic reality of European anti-Semitism.

The Jew in the text has been travelling for a long time and is trying to forget his past. He does not want to talk about his life. He wants to be an individual like others in Staadt (the town where the novel is set). The reader understands that the Jews know nothing about their lives and it is said they will die without ever finding out. The denizens of Staadt know when the Jew arrived. They know what he has done there, and who he has spoken to. They know the Jew will be executed for being Gringo’s enemy. The Jews in the text appear to have gotten lost in their identities, and either repressed or forgotten everything they are apart from being Jews – the only thing they are not allowed to forget. In a conversation with Abahn, Sabana says that the Jew will not be killed in a concentration camp, that there are none there. Abahn replies that there are none, anywhere; that these were not the Jews who were in the concentration camps – they were others.

The Jew cancels out identity. He represents the strange and unknown that exists outside Gringo’s party, and he reveals the instability of Sabana’s and David’s constructed identities. Instead of the Jew becoming the Other – whose purpose is to be someone for others to mirror themselves in, to define themselves against by spotting the differences – they grow uncertain in his presence. They become as foreign to themselves and as history-less as he is.

“Other,” – Sabana stops herself – “Jews: it’s the same word.”

There is no place in the text where Jews can be defined in a way other than on grounds of their religious or cultural belonging. There are other gringos everywhere. They are stateless and unwelcome and appear to belong to the European Judaism before the Second World War, despite the fact that the drama is set in 1968, twenty years after the Israeli state was founded.

“He [the Jew] said: I began thinking of travelling when I learned the word Jew,” Abahn observes.

On the Jew’s arm is a number, and Abahn tells him it was “written where you come from – the capital of the world.” Abahn says it isn’t a number but the word “NO!” This is an allegory over the anti-Semitism that exists everywhere and from which the Jews can never escape, and the fact that all Jews have, in some way, been affected by the Holocaust. At the same time, Abahn’s emphatic “NO!” emphasises that the Jews cannot always be explained from the victim’s perspective, that they refuse to let themselves be defined by Europe’s dark history of anti-Semitism.

All Jews are said to come from the same town, Auschstaadt. They have no idea where it is, only that it is everywhere and that all Jews come from there; from the town with the name that sounds like Auschwitz. Staadt is the town where the drama is set, and this leads me to associate to a word-play with the German aus (from), Aus-ch-staadt – From Town, Staadt.

“Are you Abahn the Jew, Abahn the dog?”

“Jewish dogs,” says the Jew.

“Useless,” Sabana replies.

“Without distrust,” Abahn says.

The Jew says, “Happy. The Jews are in the woods, the dogs are in the woods – the woods are in the Jew’s house.”

The Jew is called a dog. The Jewish people and the animal species are merged. In this way, the Jew loses not only his name but his humanity. The epithet is a sign that he is no longer defined on the basis of his religious or cultural belonging but as the dirty, albeit beloved, animal. This is yet another step in the process of giving and taking names; calling the Jew “Jew”, and robbing him of the right to his own identity as another Abahn.

“When the Jews break through the barbed wire on the other side of the plain by the ponds you say: Kill,” Sabana says.

David is the character that relates the strongest to the dogs but nevertheless seems to care the least about the Jews. His name comes from the Hebrew and means the loved one, and in Christian mythology he is both the defeater of the giant Goliath, and the forefather of Jesus. All this can be read into his character. The text says that David is neither Jew nor dog, ever. Duras says in her interview that the Jew represents resistance against Soviet communism and that he brings freedom to David. She means that it is not the Jews who are in danger, but David, who should be seen as a representative of the proletariat. There is only one David, but there are many Jews. David is the loved one; he is the worker, the innocent. He sleeps like a child throughout the drama, whimpering from nightmares. His fondest wish is to have the Jew’s dogs. David likes the dogs and he betrays the Jew just to get them. The Jew has spoken to David about working conditions, about freedom and despair, but David does not understand. Nevertheless, David has repeated his words to Gringo. David’s longing for the dogs is said to be stronger than life.

“Give him your damned Jew-dogs,” Sabana says.

The Jew wants David to live to tell, to continue his work. He wants David to flee to the woods, beyond all Judaism, perhaps beyond anti-Semitism and maybe even beyond communism. But dogs are not allowed in Staadt, nor are Jews in some sense, since they represent a threat against unity. David becomes both the henchman of the Jews, since he betrays the Jew, and their saviour, since he is prepared to sacrifice his life for the dogs.

“Gassed dogs,” says Sabana tenderly. “…dogs worth millions.”

“The family has had them for a thousand years, they are a part of his body,” Abahn replies.

They are referring to dogs who were killed with methods used in concentration camps, and how this was a loss of value in some ways – perhaps an economic loss since they could have been used as labour. They had value. The second part of the quote opens up another possibility, where the “family” can be interpreted as the Jewish people, and dogs are part of the Jews (or Judaism) and have been around since the exodus.

“Beyond all Judaism”

The Jew was a member of Gringo’s party before but has now left Soviet communism. He stands for a more freedom-oriented communism, yet he is still a communist. One could say the Jew has given up hope on will follow the proletariat’s dictatorship, unlike Gringo who is still convinced.

“Gringo’s only way of existing for the Jew is to murder him,” Abahn says.
The Jew is not only a threat in what he is saying now, but also in his betrayal. The Jew’s speech could be interpreted as agitation; telling workers like David that this kind of communism is not worth the effort, that freedom is close at hand.
The characters’ political positions crystallise in the course of the drama, but there is some uncertainty regarding Sabana. Her hazy identity does not allow her to be captured in terms of political, ethnic or religious belonging. Abahn, too, fills another purpose. He represents more than a political faction. So we are left with the Jew – the disillusioned, Gringo – the believer, and David – the beloved worker.

In the final part of the text, the list of characters is expanded with the arrival of David’s wife Jeanne (it is hinted that she is also Gringo’s wife). She comes with Gringo’s people and works for the party. Jeanne has tried to save the Jew from execution, and Duras sees her as social liberalism. Jeanne comes to the Jew’s house in the company of party comrades to confirm that David is guarding the Jew. The Jew now wants to flee; this is his first attempt to escape his fate. He wants to try to survive.

Two new voices blend at the end of the drama, when Jeanne asks Sabana to speak for her. It is hinted that both are married to David. Sabana and David do not want to return to Staadt, and Jeanne tells them to flee together. She will follow later, but it is Sabana who speaks in her place. Jeanne leaves. The Jew does not move but has nevertheless departed. Jeanne leaves and the Jew has left with her. The “Jew” as a character leaves the stage at this time. The “Jew”, who has so often been used in drama to signify the Other, exits, accompanied by Shakespeare’s Shylock, Marlowe’s Barabas, Bergman’s Isak Jacobi and Almqvist’s Benjamin Isak Cohen, among many others.

Duras’ “Jew” is set apart from the rest however, since his purpose is not to be a stereotype. Nor is he alone against the other actors, but has Abahn by his side and is protected by the others’ identity-less uncertainty. Still, he is the “Jew.” In short, he is of another religion, another heritage, and part of another history than the one Duras claims to want to tell – the one about Prague, 1968. He is an instrument, a driving force and a proffered image of instability. He is also the “Jew” who cannot be assimilated and perhaps does not want to be. In the same way that my name has changed over generations, from Rivka to Regina to Rebecka, assimilation is only temporary and superficial. The Jew can be a member of Gringo’s party, but can never stay for long, because in the world of the stage he is not a full member of the cast. He always has a purpose to fill, a purpose defined by someone else.“Whatever happens I will stay with the Jews,” Sabana says.

“Why?” Jeanne asks.

“They love everything,” Sabana replies.

“They want the world to come to an end.”


English translation by Gabriella Berggren

[i] Interview with Marguerite Duras, by Germaine Brée; Marguerite Duras, from: Contemporary Literature, University of Wisconsin Press 1972.

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Rebecka is a first year MA student in Liberal Studies. She also works as a freelance writer and is one of the editors for the Swedish cultural magazine “Slut” (“The End”). Her main focuses are feminism and postcolonial studies within the frame of literature and contemporary art.

“Are the others called Jews here?” was written for and published by the Jewish Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden for their production of the Marguerite Duras novella “Abahn, Sabana, David” – see www.judiskateatern.se for more info.