Kin by Dror Burstein (trans. Dalya Bilu). Dalkey Archive Press. 140pp, $14.00.
On the first page of Dror Burstein’s novel Kin is a picture of a young child, perhaps just before his sixth birthday, showing his milk teeth in a wide smile. This is Emile, who as a one-day-old baby is left at the adoption center of a maternity hospital in Jaffa by his young parents. At the time the photograph is taken, Emile must already have been living in Tel Aviv with his adoptive parents Leah and Yoel for years—his whole life minus one day.
It is this one day that hurts. It is also the nine months of Leah’s empty belly that hurt, even long after Leah is killed in an elevator accident when Emile is six years old. Kin unfolds over the thirty years after this tragedy, as the doubts suppressed by Leah’s presence rise to the surface of Yoel’s consciousness and are never quite dispelled. After Leah’s death, Yoel cannot quite believe in the family they have created anymore—a family that in his eyes remains uncomfortably artificial because of their humiliating failure to conceive a child of their own.
Is Emile really Yoel’s kin? What is it, actually, this supposedly unassailable thing, a family? Nothing seems simpler than the fact that everybody is somebody’s child, and that the three people involved in this construction form a single unit. This assumption is torn asunder in Kin, where instead of a stable nucleus of two, four parents (three of them absent) hover fearfully, tentatively, around one child. The question pulsing throughout Kin is whether the five pillars of this family can ever be configured into a unit, a togetherness, or whether they must remain separate, belonging to no one, forever. Or if even just two of them, Emile and Yoel, can. And if this proves not to be possible, then how do any of them go on living?
Though Kin is narrated in the third person, it is divided into chapters that alternately offer intimate views into the minds of all the characters. Yoel’s perspective is the most heavily represented, with almost a dozen chapters bearing his name, but each of the five main characters has at least one chapter dedicated to his or her viewpoint. There are also chapters consisting of a compound of two or three characters’ experiences: there is Yoel-Leah, Emile-Yoel, Yoel-Leah-Emile. The names of Emile’s birth parents are represented by two identical blanks enclosed by parentheses.
The way this family—if it can be called that—is fragmented is reflected in these chapter titles. Yoel-Leah-Emile, this constellation of three, only occurs twice. The first time it does, however, the scene is not one where they are all alive and together, but the moment Yoel and Emile return home from the cemetery where they have just buried Leah. And immediately, when they come home, “the rage welled up in Yoel for the first time, the bitter anger… It’s all on me, he thought… He was ready to be with Emile a little every day after work. But not all day. No no, he thought. Not that. That was out of the question.” One of the outstanding features of Burstein’s language is that it traces not only the contents of his characters’ thoughts, but their unique rhythms and timbres as they pass through their owner’s minds. Yoel’s shock—at losing his wife, at suddenly being on his own with Emile—is delivered in a halting staccato that shows that his thoughts, at this moment, are forming in bursts, in sobs of protest, not yet capable of the sad calm they will soon acquire.
A few days later, the tone of Yoel’s thoughts has already changed. At work, a religious man tells Yoel that the loss of his wife, his moon, has made him a planet in an uncertain orbit, deprived of its gravitational counterweight. A central theme in the tragedy of Yoel-Emile/Emile-Yoel is born in these early months after the funeral. Yoel “understood that the moon hadn’t been taken away from him, the moon had been replaced. But it would take a hard six months for the moon to shine again in his life.” Little Emile sits in their apartment, reads comics, plays with stray cats: this new moon “shone, it shone, but Yoel did not perceive its light.”
Though there are moments in Yoel and Emile’s relationship when Yoel does feel immensely grateful for Emile’s presence, there is still an unavoidable sense that their relationship does lack a certain shine: the shine of confidence in their kin. The two of them cannot quite manage to be whole together. Yoel is not the only culprit in destabilizing their shaky union. Aware from an early age that he is adopted, Emile, too, sometimes unwittingly, does his part. When he is five, he draws a picture of himself with a big heart hovering over his head, an arrow pointing from his little figure to a larger one. “Him, the real one”, he says in response to Yoel’s question about who the larger figure is: the “real” father. At his young age, Emile doesn’t yet appreciate that with this one little word, “real”, he is negating Yoel’s whole sense of legitimacy and self-worth—the things Yoel has tried so hard to resurrect since Leah’s death. It is a perfect stab, exactly where it hurts the most.
Yoel, as Emile grows up, continues to struggle with the doubts that have beleaguered him since Leah’s death, or, if he is honest with himself, even before that. He loves Emile, of course he does, but sometimes a bitter, disturbing thought still seizes him.
He had only a few such moments. Each of them could be measured in seconds. Black seconds, during which he hated Emile for being Emile. For his very existence. … A few seconds of dripping poison, and already your veins are black, your blood murky, your soul sinks and turns into motor oil. His soul turned into black oil. If they put it into a car the car would run.
The question that eats away at Yoel is whether a love that can turn into black poison so quickly, without warning, is really love, is enough love, is filial love. He begins to fantasize about returning Emile to his birth parents, who may not even know Emile, but who, Yoel thinks, genetically, instinctively, will be able to give him the right kind of love.
There is therefore a chapter called Yoel-[ ] and [ ]. When Emile is already thirty-seven, Yoel finally gathers the courage to pay Emile’s birth parents a visit. His proposal is this; he is getting old, he is sick, who knows how long he will live, and they, the four of them, have been granted an unusual opportunity. Why waste this rare gift, the chance to “give him another twenty years of having a father and a mother.” The visit is extraordinarily painful for all of them. For Yoel, his idea is both an act of generosity and love, but also an admission of desperation, and perhaps of failure. For [ ] and [ ], on the other hand, it is a nightmare. The trauma of giving away their child has never left either of them. Their identities are so entwined around Emile, around his absence, that they are incapable of growing beyond that moment in 1970 when they turned their backs on the adoption ward. She, [ ], secretly goes to funerals of soldiers with the same birthday as Emile, thinking
Was it him. Maybe. Definitely not. Maybe. Beyond a doubt… no. … She clung to the last vestiges of hope. But her toes were already dipped in that lake, in the heart of the distant, impassable forest, down narrow steps, with the smell of mold, and the smell of fire. Heavier and heavier. With every step.
In his tracing of his character’s thoughts, Burstein is not afraid to follow them down the strange pathways, into the cryptic metaphors and remote labyrinths where they sometimes lead. It is when it descends to these eerie places that Burstein’s language is at its most magnificent and revelatory. Down here, it unfolds and gives new volume and depth to the experience that plagues Emile, Yoel, [ ] and [ ] throughout their lives: the restless and unyielding ache of loss.
The exchange Yoel envisions, this crazy plan, never comes to pass. It is clear to everyone involved that it would have been no solution, and that the gaps and blank spaces in their lives could not have been closed by such a crude transaction. It is ultimately how Emile’s birth mother, hiding between the thorns of a public garden, imagines: “she saw them, all of them, yes, all five of them, passing and groping with their hands stretched out before them, seeking but not finding one another. Calling, close, nearly touching.” Kin does not offer a resolution to this veiled, mutual seeking. The four still-living characters continue to move through their lives all imagining each other, having nightmares (but also dreams) about each other.
It is a courageous decision by Burstein to forgo an ending that offers reconciliation or closure. At the novel’s end, the five characters remain fragments of something that was never a whole, their identities interlocked, wound around the unknown contours of each other. They must all structure their lives around gaps that are ineradicable. Kin’s great accomplishment is the finding of a language that reveals and at the same time probes these gaps; that subtly navigates all the shades and textures of loss and longing. There may be no way for the five members of this family—for that, ultimately, is what it must be—to be a whole, but all are deeply and enduringly embedded in each other’s souls. Though it is a struggle every day, they are, at least, together in this.
Mona Gainer-Salim is a student of literature and illustrator. She lives in Vienna.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Mona Gainer-Salim