The Last Jew by Yoram Kaniuk (trans. Barbara Harshav). Grove Press. $15.00, 528 pp.
Adam Resurrected by Yoram Kaniuk (trans. Seymour Simckes). Grove Press. $15.00, 384 pp.
Life on Sandpaper by Yoram Kaniuk (trans. Anthony Berris). Dalkey Archive Press. $15.95, 400 pp,
1948 by Yoram Kaniuk (trans. Anthony Berris). NYRB LIT.
As a child I lived for some years in Israel, and the landscape once existed in my mind as dominantly suburban: low stuccoed houses, glossy high-rises, and vegetation kept alive only by elaborate sprinkler systems. After reading Yoram Kaniuk, however, I have become aware of something older and far more menacing underneath this pristine modern veneer. To read Kaniuk is not only to see the land in a different time but to learn of its ruthlessness, the arrogance of its arid peaks and the tenacity of its dust. A profound connection exists between Kaniuk’s language and the geography of what throughout his penultimate novel, 1948, he calls Eretz Yisrael—the land of Israel, not the State of Israel.
Eretz Yisrael is my starting point because it is Kaniuk’s. Born in Tel Aviv in 1930, he grew up in the narrow strip of land dividing the stony Judean hills from the Mediterranean. As a teenager, he took part in excursions to the Negev and Masada, places suffused with the echoes of an ancient terror. His passion for language took hold in his consciousness in tandem with the wild, harsh geography of his native land. At sixteen, Kaniuk baffled his peers by reciting Bialik and Shlonsky, both early immigrants to Israel and poets instrumental in reawakening Hebrew from its biblical slumber. A mere two years later, the violent passions then extant—the desire for a Jewish state clashing viciously with a deeply entrenched native population—finally descended into war. Kaniuk, driven by ardent lines of verse and by the sunken eyes of the recently arrived survivors of the Holocaust, voluntarily enlisted. Afterward, he would flee to the United States for ten years, adrift and traumatized after experiencing death and terror in a landscape that to him had become boundlessly cruel, a place where “everything . . . is desiccated, desecrated, disjointed, berserk, forever banished from everybody and everything, yet also sublime and beautiful, as beautiful as an eagle, its beauty dreadful, primordial.”
This sentence might as well describe Kaniuk’s writing itself. 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.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Last Jew (2006), the novel generally regarded as Kaniuk’s masterpiece. Its main character is Ebenezer, a Holocaust survivor who has forgotten his own story and remembers instead the entire history of the Jewish people, nine million words of facts and stories covering thousands of years. His knowledge transcends time and space, extending far into the past and spilling over into the present and future, traversing oceans and continents. Until The Last Jew’s final pages, the reader is led to believe that the story is narrated alternately by a prominent German writer and an idealistic Israeli teacher. These two men have both lost their children and believe that Ebenezer holds the key to explaining their deaths. In the end we discover, however, that all the novel’s five hundred pages have been recorded by Ebenezer on a series of tapes, which have subsequently been collected and transcribed by his two investigators.
Throughout the novel, the reader cannot get a true grasp on Ebenezer, precisely because his investigators—who we think are narrating the story—have such difficulty understanding him. Moreover, “Germanwriter” and Henkin, the teacher, tend to see him not so much as a person but as an object of research. Reports are commissioned about Ebenezer’s incredible talent; everyone has a theory about it, and these accounts overlap, contradict each other, and run on for endless pages—indeed, they fill the whole book. But at the very end of this massive volume of conjecture, everything is turned on its head: it is Ebenezer who has been recounting his story all along. Far from simplifying things, however, this revelation throws up fresh, though no less confounding, issues—within his own narration, under the guise of another speaker, Ebenezer communicates that he is prone to reshuffling his stories, amplifying or de-emphasizing certain elements at random. Effectively, it is impossible ever to know what is what.
What thickens the plot even further is that, according to all his investigators, Ebenezer himself is a complete blank. According to the best hypothesis available, he has emptied himself of his own history to make room for the innumerable stories he has made it his mission to remember: “his brain cells, or some of them, turned into sponges of knowledge and at the same time also into extinguishers of themselves.” It is this remarkable phenomenon, this radical surrender of selfhood, that the investigators are so fascinated by to begin with. But at the same time, it is impossible not to wonder—would Ebenezer tell stories at all if he were not prompted continually by others? If he is indeed bereft of identity, desire, and personal history, would he have recorded these tapes? Questions upon questions pile up, with no satisfactory answer forthcoming; the reader is left adding to the other characters’ conjecture, just one lost investigator among many.
All this time, one must not forget that the investigators are using Ebenezer as a means to an end. They are not interested in solving his riddle merely for its own sake, but in order to gain an insight into their own suffering. Indeed, again and again Ebenezer ends up surrounded by people who make their living out of the commemoration of tragedy—or, to put it more harshly, the exploitation of suffering for profit. Some of them are more openly cynical about their occupations than others; immediately after the war Ebenezer is trotted around Europe by Samuel Lipker, another concentration camp survivor, and made to recite his impossible knowledge night after night in seedy bars as a sort of grotesque stand-up tragedian. Years later in Israel, Ebenezer’s son Boaz creates a memorial business empire that feeds off the deaths of young Israelis at war. Even Henkin and Germanwriter, whose project at least maintains the illusion of integrity, reveal the ambition to publish a book based on Ebenezer’s story.
Characteristically, however, Kaniuk does not make it easy to condemn these characters. For one thing, the way they live their lives is infinitely more familiar and recognizable than Ebenezer’s. Their actions, at least as they are recounted, are human—flawed and infuriating, but infused with the palpitations of living hearts. Each was once a victim, too, and each is clearly obsessed by the need to make sense of the forces that have torn their lives asunder. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is a cypher, distant, numb and insentient. The reader’s emotional rapport with Sam, Boaz, Henkin and Germanwriter leaves him in a quandary; on the one hand, it feels contemptible to join the other characters in using Ebenezer for their own ends, but on the other, isn’t it still valid and necessary to strive for truth, self-interest notwithstanding? And further, isn’t this very notion—seeking a deeper truth through a specific situation, or more abstractly, the universal through the particular—the fundamental mechanism of fiction itself?
Kaniuk draws the reader into his fictional world as a participant, not just a spectator. The reader is forced to consider his own role in relation to the work, to reflect on his reactions and allegiances. This is true not only of The Last Jew, but also of much earlier works. Published in 1971, Adam Resurrected too centers on a Holocaust survivor, Adam Stein, who is now a patient at Mrs. Seizling’s Institute for Rehabilitation and Therapy, a pristine, state-of-the-art facility perched incongruously on a desolate chain of hills in the Israeli Negev desert. Contrary to expectations, Adam Resurrected is remarkable for its humor. Adam is by nature a trickster who starred in his own circus before war; now he uses his extraordinary intellect and flair for performance not only to give lectures for the other inhabitants, but to seduce nurses and generally to bring everyone at the Institute under his spell. Throughout the novel, he concocts a dizzying succession of schemes that veer hilariously between brilliance and absurdity. The chapter “Watermelon!” is dedicated entirely to one such escapade, in which Adam devises a plan to collect hundreds of watermelons from patients’ relatives by convincing them that an ailing fellow patient loves nothing more in life than these. However, through all his gags, it is impossible not to be disturbed by Adam’s ability to make us laugh, for Adam survived the camps by virtue of this very gift, playing a dog for the amusement of the camp director, Commandant Klein.
Each laugh Adam elicits in the reader is immediately followed by a suspicion that tragedy has been forced into the guise of comedy, and that we have been fooled into the wrong response. As with other features of Adam’s personality, it is impossible to discern whether his humor is a result of his trauma or whether it precedes it. It is true that Adam is a clown by profession and by inclination, but his experiences in the camps seem to have kicked his humor into overdrive, driving him to execute ever more overwrought comedies as if his life still depended on it. Distressingly, humor in Adam Resurrected is both comic relief and an indispensable element in the grave problematics of recovery. In the same breath, Kaniuk forces the impulse to laugh and to second-guess our laughter.
Kaniuk is drawn to characters who straddle the divide between sanity and madness. Adam Stein is such a character: in fact he is so constantly referred to as mad that it is impossible not to suspect that the idea of madness itself is being mocked, just as Adam relentlessly lampoons his painfully well-intentioned psychotherapist, Dr. Gross, and with him the notion of recovery. Kaniuk’s language traces Adam’s consciousness as it circles and turns on its own axis like a restless bird of prey, passing in and out of states of lucidity. A sharp, observant phrase is followed by a drunken, nonsensical one. At times Adam summarizes his condition from a distance, in sober medical language; at the next moment he might cry like a child, suffocating with despair. Alternately abusive and loving, domineering and helpless, he walks a tightrope over a yawning abyss, inviting disaster but at the same time, perhaps, admitting a slim possibility of renewal and resurrection.
This schizophrenia is brought on with particular force by the strangest resident of the Institute altogether, a howling creature Adam finds huddling under a filthy sheet in a dark room: “[a] child, a dog; a dog, a child. A child that is not a child, and a dog that is not a dog.” The creature’s identity flickers between these extremes. Adam Resurrected is largely concerned with the evolution of the relationship between Adam and this peculiar being. From the beginning, the two are uncontrollably drawn to one other, though they share a mutual terror: Adam of the shuddering hulk in the corner, its too-human smell and sad, lovely blue eyes; the child/dog of Adam’s crude and unintelligible attempts at friendship. David, King of Israel, as the creature is eventually named, is a sort of alter-ego to Adam, who finds it both unbearable and essential to be in David’s presence: “it is helplessness [Adam] feels before the child, before the kind expression facing him. He stretches out his hand, touches the dog’s hair, its straggly hair. The greasiness and the filth disgust him, and the child senses it clearly, moves back, and howls.”
Although Adam Resurrected focuses around Adam and David, the Institute’s other inhabitants have their own torments and ecstasies, which sometimes become so strong they infect the Institute’s entire population. In particular there is the old “Schwester sister,” the bosom friend of the late Mrs. Seizling, a woman obsessed with the idea of bringing about “the reappearance of God.” The Schwester sister is a paradox of ferocity and gentleness who from a distance might be mistaken for an amiably batty grandmother, her “upper lip . . . crowned with a slight mustache,” but who when she speaks becomes electric, her soul shining with force and her tiny mustache quivering with passion.
“And the miracle of this land is God’s miracle,” she told Mrs. Seizling, who was listening intensely. “Right here God revealed Himself. Right here faith was designed, here His words were articulated . . . under the sun, in the desert, among the cliffs, among the crevices, along the vast stretches of sand—a place that has no corners . . . no make-up, no subtle colors. Everything cruel, shrill, totalitarian . . . His spirit is still alive there, you feel it, the roar of His might, His giant proportions, His cruelty, His essence . . . in the caves, the cracks . . . there all is vacant, stale, severe, intense, yet gorgeous.”
The Schwester sister articulates a theme that surfaces regularly in Kaniuk’s fiction: what it is to belong to “a cursed tribe,” as Kaniuk himself once said. What the nation longs for, according to the Schwester sister, is a return to the God it betrayed, for which “we paid the highest price possible—we became smoke and ashes.” This notion of a curse is accompanied by a fanatical desire to be redeemed—to be embraced by God once again—and what this requires is surrender, not only to God himself, but to the cruel landscape where he resides. But when the small tribe of Institute patients straggles into the desert night to meet him, the closest they come to finding God is to hallucinate with cold, terror and humiliation. The Schwester sister is part of a small but insistent group of characters in Kaniuk’s body of work who try to counter their distress with an all-consuming, sometimes spooky, spiritualism. They attempt to steer their ships, in desperate hope, towards a slender possibility of redemption, only to run aground time and again on the bitter, sordid shore of humanity.
We find ourselves now at the heart of the matter. Throughout Kaniuk’s work we find characters who are obsessed with the idea of liberating themselves from the terrible weight of the past. The idea of recovery is roundly mocked by Adam Stein; Henkin and Germanwriter seem to labor largely in the dark—but no matter how much the possibility is derided and trampled upon, it is a constant and unyielding preoccupation. It comes as a shock, then, when we discover that both Adam and Ebenezer are granted a sort of recovery, which for them comes in the form of a reawakening to normal life. “Something happens, a late awakening, a second childhood”, Ebenezer says, “I’m left alone with myself, a cockroach, like everybody, in the backyard of my life, with Fanya R., with a certain, unclear future, for a while, I have no more memories of others I’m only for myself.”
The concept of the double or alter-ego is crucial to both recoveries—Ebenezer is released from his trance only when Samuel Lipker, his surrogate son, and Boaz Schneerson, his biological son, whose fates have been bound together since the moment of their birth, finally meet for the first time. Likewise, after many upheavals, Adam and David, the child (whom Adam even calls “my child” in the final pages), eventually heal each other through their mirror images. Adam helps the dog to become a child, and in the process is himself once again resurrected into a man. The novel’s end, when Adam and David part, is so touching and sentimental that one half-expects Adam to be pulling one last great joke on us—but the punchline doesn’t come.
I stretched my hand to [David] and he squeezed it in his fist, but still did not show me his face. We remained in no-man’s land. From then on, we were able to touch each other just with our fingertips, like all other human beings. Only in the dark days of madness were we able to make a contact of hearts, rubbing hearts like noses.
It may not be good critical form to do so, but it is tempting to extend the idea of the double to Kaniuk himself; in addition to his fiction, Kaniuk has written several pieces of autobiography. Life on Sandpaper chronicles his years in the United States immediately after the Israeli War of Independence. In response to a question about the years of wandering described in Sandpaper, Kaniuk answers, “I was restless, I was crazy—this was ten years of madness. I had terrible depressions and was climbing the walls . . . and if you read my new book, about the 1948 war, just published in Israel, you’d understand everything.”
If we follow this suggestion and look to 1948 as the key that unlocks Kaniuk’s oeuvre, what does it tell us? 1948 begins, chillingly, with a quote from the Book of Ezekiel: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea. I said unto thee: In thy blood, live.” This is what Kaniuk—or rather the seventeen-year-old Yoram—learns in the serrated wadis and exposed valleys of Eretz Yisrael. As we suspected all along, the truth that clings to him across the years is not one that can offer much solace:
[T]here’s something in soldiers, in every war that people who have not fought will never know: the terrible dependency on killing. There is a primordial instinct in man, we were born to kill in order to live, to be hunters, to protect our family. I remember that in between, between pain and nothingness, I loved the moments of battle. We all loved them. Every fighting soldier loves to shoot and kill. He’s got an enemy. And the enemy leaves no need for philosophizing about morals and things like that. In battle we are human beasts. Bloodthirsty.
Kaniuk’s language changes in this book. Instead of the wild, fragmentary melee of The Last Jew and Life of Sandpaper (and to a lesser extent Adam Resurrected), Kaniuk writes without detours, plainly and urgently. It is as though he has distilled to their essence the thoughts and images that have plagued him all his life. Through his various doubles, conceived over decades of thinking and writing about the darkest, bloodiest times in human history, Kaniuk has learned that, though terrible truths cannot be suppressed, it is possible, and crucial, to live in awareness of them. Or rather, this is what the reader has learned. Kaniuk has known it from the start.
Mona Gainer-Salim is a student of literature and illustrator. She lives in Vienna.
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