Issue 37 of The Quarterly Conversation, Mona Gainer-Salim wrote of the acclaimed Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk that
Kaniuk writes with what feels like an unpremeditated abandonment, ignoring conventional punctuation, changing tone and register abruptly, and switching the referent of personal pronouns mid-paragraph. As a result, his plots can be difficult to follow, and his meaning disconcertingly unstable. Supernatural forces are liable to seep into the narrative, in the manner of Marquez or perhaps Rushdie, but here they appear in an altogether more unpredictable, unnerving way. The internal logic of Kaniuk’s world requires patience and tenacity to discover, and requires readers to relinquish deeply ingrained assumptions about fiction—most fundamentally, the expectation that stories must stem from an identifiable source or narrator, lending them a firm internal consistency. Kaniuk favors a narrative structure composed instead of a myriad of intertwining, conflicting stories told by a range of characters, each of whom exhibits qualities that significantly undermine his reliability. Objectivity is a laughable idea—no foundation exists apart from the flawed and erratic perception of the speaker.
We are very pleased to present this excerpt from Kaniuk’s final book, Between Life and Death, a striking and often powerfully visceral autobiographical novel about the four months Kaniuk spent in a coma near the end of his life. This title is available this month from Restless Books. More information can be found here.
After the operation, my fever soared, I was told, and among the three viruses called virulent viruses, my virus was the worst. A real rascal, only one antibiotic could help, and it penetrated from the belly to the lungs, and they collapsed. Dr. Szold, who was both our family doctor and the head of the ICU in Surgery B, didn’t give up. A giant man, Szold. An outstanding doctor. It was Friday night. The one pharmacy that was open didn’t have what he was looking for. The hospital pharmacy was closed. Szold yelled at a nurse, they said, to go find the sleeping pharmacist. The nurse woke him up and he came, the poor man, he opened up and found that rare serum, Szold gave me an injection, and two pneumonias were struggling in me at the same time, I couldn’t breathe. It was an emergency, all my muscles had to be paralyzed so I couldn’t move a muscle and I would remain completely paralyzed; the lungs shut down and they had to stuff me with gas, and when I try to recall those days, I can’t remember a thing. But I did see… and if I saw, what did I see? Maybe I didn’t see? I don’t know. I saw transparent rings flying like giant octopi, and there’s a vague memory in me of grass growing down, growing inside with petals into a brown bed of earth I held inside me. Maybe it wasn’t. I remember that, after the coma, in the first week after I woke up, steeped in a doze, there was in me a spark of a sense that I saw myself from outside. That I was looking at Yoram Kaniuk and trying to understand who and why and from what I don’t know what I remembered that I read about a restaurant in Japan and in its center stands a giant aquarium; the diners sit around the aquarium and eat the fish that are hung while alive. His body is cut and goes to a sharp knife held by the slaughterer and it is served to the diners and they eat pieces of it with chopsticks and its live head watches them eating it. That apparently was somehow in the depths of my mind. An illusion. In fact funny, because the brutality of people eating the fish that’s looking at them as they eat it is in fact my whole story but the fish hurts and I don’t.
When I began to show signs of life, they tried to wake me up, and I do remember those days because they called me to come, they kept calling me again and again, “Yoram, wake up.” But there was no fear in me and maybe that’s why I remember that I didn’t want to wake up, really didn’t want to, and didn’t want to return from the noplace where I was because I felt good and comfortable, and it took days for me to give up, it was hot, hazy, vague, and it was warm and good, like a dream playing or more precisely (I feel) flaying. But all that changed because the doctors say that something in me chose life. That I did want to live. Who was in me that chose life, I don’t know. I lay between calls of “Yoram, wake up” said by the doctors who came to check what could be done. Miranda sat and slept next to me. She was so tired in the pupil of my eye. My cousin Rina came, who talks fast to catch the words while they’re still in the air, and maybe I only imagined her. She was my childhood friend, at our grandmother’s house on Hess Street. She came into my death now apparently, because when she was born—and this is the story they told over and over again in the family—Sonya her mother died. My uncle Alex met Sonya a few days after she came from Russia and fell in love with her. They got married and she immediately got pregnant. Alex was too much in love to ask her about herself, but she did say that her mother died giving birth to her, and she gave birth to Rina and also died in childbirth, and Rina my childhood love returns to me. Maybe the death placed before me brought her and maybe she didn’t come at all, and I was glad she came from her settlement in the south to visit me, but I couldn’t show any feelings. When we were children and played at my grandmother’s house, I’d have to pretend we were strangers, and we’d walk from my grandmother’s house (which was later replaced by an apartment behind Bialik House near the stairs) to Tchernikhovski to eat ice cream at Whitman’s. We’d walk on either side of the street, she on one sidewalk and I on the other, and here she is at my sickbed for some reason, mischievous, sweet, and bold, who would steal pencils and erasers at “Hepzibah” on Allenby Street. Violence is also a kind of wooing and as soon as she could she went to a kibbutz in the Galilee, married the first guy she met, and got pregnant. Nine months later, she came to give birth in Tel Aviv. My mother and my uncle, who didn’t believe in superstitions, sat in the waiting room at Hadassah Medical Center and were overcome by dread. I remember the dread, how my nonbelieving uncle lay on the ground and bit the rug, but Rina gave birth to a daughter and stayed alive and there was great joy, and my uncle brought a bottle of brandy and everyone drank and Rina went back to the kibbutz in November 1947, and on December 1, the first day of the war, her husband was killed and everyone understood that the danger had passed.
I get out of bed in the hospital and go for a walk, engaged with Rina, as Sarah my mother would say, to see the condition of her mother in the graveyard on Trumpeldor Street. She holds my hand and weeps. Sonya was the only mother she had, and she didn’t know a thing about her. So, apparently, she came to me in the hospital, in my doze, to demonstrate a situation I thought had happened to me and remind me to think about Sonya when she sits before me. She left only one faded photo of herself, my mysterious aunt, and as the man from the Negev told me—I don’t remember where I know him from—Sonya opened doors for us all in heaven and was a pioneer in upper space for the Jews who’d be there. So she was the embodiment of the fear that there is no God without Satan, and I tell the man I’ll write in my will that after my death the whole world will go to hell, but that’s not the truth.
The doctors tell me today that in the two weeks I was unconscious, they were helpless. Dr. Szold, who found the balloon of gas that was nothing but a kind of laughing gas that was capable, perhaps, of clinging to the collapsed lung, had to cut my throat and stick two big openings in it to get inside. The virus came as an addition to the cancer but isn’t to blame for it. According to Professor Halperin, colon cancer takes years to develop and it came to me apparently out of great love long ago and only waited for the right moment. He also said that colon cancer is considered a friendly cancer. There was almost no doctor or nurse who didn’t tell me that. Nevertheless, it is considered one of the great murderers among the cancers, and I told them, “Who needs a friend like that?” But later on I thought the doctors didn’t understand the personal side in the battle of cancer. Unlike the crazy virus that almost killed me after the defeat of the cancer, the cancer doesn’t attack out of hostility, it attacks because that’s its essence. Like a scorpion that has to sting, cancer is created with a nature indifferent to the suffering of its victims and it chose me by chance, which makes suffering at least comfortable, because the cancer doesn’t care if something happens and doesn’t care about killing me, but has nothing personal against me. I thought the cancer despises life for good and obvious reasons and so isn’t concerned with them, and what may be even more correct, it feeds on them. I stood in his way when he passed, and he had to get inside me, as if reducing the population that develops too fast.
In the war, I also shot without seeing who I was shooting at. I killed and I didn’t know who, and I never went to look for the families of the people I killed. As if they deserved the suffering, they suffered because I hit the member of their family. I once went to Venice to a conference of writers on Mediterranean culture, I met a Lebanese man originally from Palestine, who was fond of me, and we walked laughing among the fat doves, and I told him that Stendhal wrote that two young girls sat in Piazza San Marco on an enchanting spring day and drank lemonade and looked happy and one said to the other, “What a shame this isn’t a sin!” He laughed. Afterward he told me I killed his uncle in the war in Kfar Saris near Jerusalem. I told him I didn’t remember much from that battle but in Saris I shot a Davidka and the mortar backfired and maybe he really did have an uncle there, and he said with a bitter laugh that his uncle told him specifically that he saw me in Saris and remembered how I cleaned a rifle after I shot him, and I said it wasn’t a rifle, and he suddenly, so sweet, disguised himself as a nice guy and forgave me for his uncle’s death. I said if his uncle really was dead, he didn’t see who killed him and he couldn’t possibly remember me, and I woke up for a moment. I was still in the ICU at Ichilov Hospital, Surgical Ward B, and not in Venice and not in Saris.
Coming back from death may have been the most powerful experience in my life. Too bad it all happened to me so late in my life. Like déjà vu I remember the dying I lost, the emptiness I returned to, how I missed that black hole where I was for three weeks and I knew I missed it. One day, maybe a week after I started coming back and was already recognizing a few people who had come to see me dying, I understood that I had a body. Then I entered not exactly into a vision but into a fog that came from a source I didn’t understand. I remember spaces in front of me. Air bubbles. Movements of sorts. People who looked like bubbles or transparent spiders in the movements. Here and there I’d smile because the muscles of my face were out of control as with babies when you tickle their belly. But the truth is I really didn’t see, and I only wanted Miranda to be with me, and in the vision I laughed in my mind because I realized how, when I worked at Davar, everybody was afraid of the oldest writer, di zakhai, the old guy, who would aim the mischievous look of a tall, smiling old man, and because of his long life he became the national eulogizer of his generation and then the next generation and the next generation, and remained lucid in life and wanted to deliver a eulogy but there wasn’t anybody left to eulogize. Then I started writing in the newspaper and he ran into me and started asking questions and I saw all the journalists hiding in the doorways.
I’m told that for many days people stood next to what they thought was my corpse and wept. They said the hospital office was teeming with journalists. The nothingness I was sunk in was an abyss, a womb I emerged from into a charred world, and half my flesh was dead and I hated me. I remembered the place where I was born as a filthy abyss. “The end is the riddle, the beginning is the solution,” wrote Kabak in Shlomo Molkho, and like everybody I came from noplace and even sought my memory as Yeats sought memory ever since the world was created, but I didn’t find it. I did find a dark cave. I remember a kind of something. No tunnel. No flickering lights. No all that garbage of “all my life passed before me,” no nothing. Over and over, I heard “Yoram, wake up,” and maybe I cried but maybe I didn’t. The slumber controlled by the doctors, who didn’t want me to remember the torments, and didn’t want me to suffer, and now I’m trying to understand what happened after the weeks of coma and remember very well how I really persisted, I fought not to wake up. I hid behind a screen of imagining and I saw the people standing as if they were human body parts. I made out their tears that sparkled, and not the weeping. A fog was before my eyes, I recognized the faces of people who stood in a white halo and behind it were also people I couldn’t recognize, and all the time, they said to me, “Yoram, wake up, Yoram, wake up.”
And I see a male nurse I know is an Arab, I don’t know how I know he’s an Arab, but I know that his name is Mahmid, and he sits at the table and pastes bus cards into a photo album and concentrates on his work, and I think about who is he and he is apparently ordered to say every ten minutes or so, “Yoram, wake up,” and I lie in the strange bed that looks like a coffin and I can’t move. The movements in the space around me are like sketches by Goya. Goya’s transparent people. I see the features of those standing before me and I myself became like an etching by Goya. I feel more than see Miranda and Naomi or my sister Mira, but they seem to be flying. Happening but not existing. When I see Miranda’s hand, I stop seeing her head. Miranda and Naomi are still spirits and maybe, maybe—that’s apparently what I thought—maybe they’re seeking reality to enter it, but I want to stay where I am, without fetters. They keep me from sleeping the deep and drugged sleep that is somehow bliss. I’m foggy, can’t move a limb. Can’t talk. And by no means do I want to wake up. Something is happening to me, I’m even glad that they’ll soon stop pestering me and let me sleep forever.
Nurses come, are pious, lift me up so I’ll feel better, and I’m a fool and want to believe them; they steal me from Miranda, who wants me to stay, but they mock her and take me to the top of the Arison Tower with the gigantic soup bowl as a helicopter pad. From there I see my sea, the sea that knew me throughout my childhood, the sea of the maiden Lichtman, may she rest in peace, with hair sprouting because she’s out of razor blades. In the distance the children are seen dressed in bathing suits and wrapped in furs, running from the water and shrieking, and at the same time I find myself in another sea altogether, in the open sea of Herzliya—if God had money He’d live there—and with me is Naomi my daughter. The two of us laugh at the sight of three young girls in bathing suits sparkling with cellphones at their ears, talking and talking, and I find myself on the roof of the Arison Building at Ichilov Hospital and a big canopy stands there.
They lay me on the concave canopy and I plead with them to take me down from there, but in vain. The canopy is supported on four poles, held by four orderlies, one of them an Ethiopian, and darkness intensifies from him and moves and clears and the cold is searing. The nurses stand at my head without looking at me. I’m naked and nude. Why nude all of a sudden, I think, what exactly is nude? Why a roof of a canopy? I’m feverish and tremble, and ask what is nude, is naked nude, and a Yemenite nurse I knew years ago in Morasha tells me, “Listen, child, you’re the nudity of your mother,” and she bursts out laughing. The fever intensifies and I’m still hanging on a gigantic thermometer that climbs up and up like the plastic thermometer that was sometimes stuck in my rectum. I yell that I’m cold, that I’m freezing, and that the cold wind is whipping me and I ask why don’t they lay me down in a bed, why don’t they cover me with a warm down comforter, and why don’t they give me pills to bring down the temperature, and one of the nurses explains—but maybe that was afterward, and I’m only attaching the memory to another day—that chills aren’t related to hot or cold, that cold water has to be poured on the patient, ice water. Then, as in an ancient ceremony of exorcism, they’re pouring pitchers of cold water on me and I’m burning and freezing and a nurse tells me, “When you’re having chills we have to flood the body with cold water, only in oldwives’ tales do you have to lie under down comforters, drink tea, and sweat.”
Above me spreads a black sky that looks like the place where I am but I don’t know what it is. I’m not on the roof anymore. I don’t know how I got down. I’m not cold anymore. I’m in bed and the people at my bed are still blurred. Now they’re sitting in a kind of big round hole and today I don’t know why it was round of all things, as if it came through the thick curtain of smoke that was frozen, and they’re bending over and moving together in big rhythmic movements that bend them over, and as they sit they sway from side to side in unison, and the frozen smoke shades them, they have no faces and they move, and as Sarah my mother would say, they sway like stalks in the wind. One of them is a woman who looks familiar. How come I really don’t know her but I do know that her name is Edith Nahman? The name is stuck in me. Like a nail. I wanted to pull it out. I felt ashamed that she’s there. I owed her something. She’s angry at me and came especially in honor of my death and probably thought, What a waste of time, I came to make sure but the bastard isn’t dead, he’s waiting for me, and he came back and didn’t even have a nice funeral. She weeps and sways from side to side, but also winks at me mischievously, and I look at her. “Maybe that’s not me?” I ask, “Tell me, Edith, why go back home from funerals? They take us stealthily, one after another, a whole generation, and not a day goes by that one of us doesn’t go and die. Why travel all the time from one funeral to another? Why be afraid when one of us dies? Unless it rains or there’s a heat wave, maybe we should wait at the entrance to the graveyard, set up a house there for anybody who’d like to stay, with beds, a shower, and a toilet, maybe even a bathtub, windows, a little kitchen, a phone, and a television, and you can sit there and not go back home in cars, in traffic jams, in crowded conditions, on the road, with policemen, with crows.”
Why is it so important to me to go back there, from the little or not so little understanding and without the ability to call things by their name but only to know them as a tangible vision? Why is it important to me to understand where I was when I wasn’t? I saw the lamp above me, I lay supine, and I was sweating. Somebody in the next cubicle was weeping bitterly. Pleading to live. Miranda wasn’t there then and neither were Naomi or Mira, and I saw a nurse bending over a gurney not far from me—apparently it would quickly be put into one of the niches. The light grew stronger. Waves of light came and went and I saw myself from above and from below, the wall in front of me became dry and singed and I heard voices, “Yoram, wake up, Yoram, wake up,” and somebody, I didn’t see who, gave me an injection, the world was concentrated on the ceiling that faded into a river of light and the wall in front of me blurred. There were moments when I knew where I was, and there were many moments or maybe many hours when I didn’t. I felt stupid, I didn’t know what was happening. I try to imagine myself, half-awake now, lying like a puffed up giant sardine; the yelling on the other side of the canvas extinguishes waking sleep in me. I’m awakened and see a laser beam from one of the monitors, glistening in the silvery ring in the ear of one of the nurses sitting at the nurses’ station reading a book.
Yoram Kaniuk was one of Israel’s most widely celebrated 20th-century novelists. The author of over a dozen books, he died in 2013. Barbara Harshav has been translating works from French, German, Hebrew and Yiddish for over twenty years and has currently published over forty books of translation including works of poetry, drama, fiction, philosophy, economics, sociology, and history.
Excerpted from Between Life and Death, by Yoram Kaniuk, with permission from Restless Books.
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