Jewish Journal

Kaniuk’s writerly riffs probe Israeli psyche

by Tom Teicholz

Posted on Nov. 7, 2008 at 3:23 am

Yoram Kaniuk

Yoram Kaniuk

Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk first grabbed my attention in 2006 when he wrote a series of diary entries about life in Tel Aviv during Israel's war with Lebanon.

Kaniuk, who will be appearing at American Jewish University on Sunday as part of the second annual Celebration of Jewish Books, painted a cranky portrait of himself as aged (he was 76 then), losing his hearing, limping and living in a Tel Aviv old-age home -- a man older than the nation itself. In his characteristic stream-of-consciousness style, he threaded his monologue with the comments of neighbors, people overheard on the street and local TV broadcasters to create a compelling mosaic of how life goes on in Israel even during wartime. And in doing so, he delivered a view from the trees, not the forest.

Here is a paragraph that offers some flavor of who Kaniuk is and his writing style:

"I'm talking to Shlomo Shva about my daughters, trying to dredge up a little sympathy. He knows about that. The harshest criticism of Israel and the Jews has always come from us. The biggest anti-Semites of all are educated Israelis, and my daughters are as fanatical as they are, but sweeter than most. I'm also a Jewish minority in my home because my wife, who has been living in Israel for 45 years, isn't Jewish, so my daughters aren't either. One of them, who's fighting against the war today and davka (a word you don't have in English!) for the Palestinians, sees herself as a Jew and she feels Jewish, but she isn't religious, so she can't be a Jew in Israel. If she we're in Germany in the 1940s, she'd be sent to the camps because of her Jewishness, but in Israel, she isn't a Christian either because unlike her mother, she wasn't baptized. What a pity. On the Seder night, when we say, 'Pour out your wrath on those who do not know you,' we mean my wife and daughters. When my daughters served in the army, I was afraid they'd desert and come home with guns in their hands and conquer me for the Arabs, and I raised a white flag and surrendered."

Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv in 1930. As a young man he witnessed the arrival of Holocaust survivors and refugees, which he would later write about. He also fought in the Battle for Jerusalem during Israel's 1948 War of Independence and was seriously wounded.

In 1952, he moved to New York, where he lived for a decade. While there, Kaniuk worked as a dishwasher at Minton's Jazz Club in Harlem, where he befriended jazz legends Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. At the time, he thought he might become a painter, but spending time with the jazz greats made him want to make music with words.

Over the years he has published 17 novels, a memoir, seven collections of short stories, two books of essays and five books for children or young adults. Arnold Band, at UCLA, ranks Kaniuk among Israel's "top 10 novelists."

A handful of Kaniuk's novels have been translated into English and 20 other languages (almost all have been translated into German and most into French and Italian). English-language editions include his first novel, "The Acrophile" (1961, American edition), as well "Confessions of a Good Arab" (published in Hebrew in 1985; American edition 1988), "Adam Resurrected" (Hebrew, 1968; American, 1978), "The Last Jew" (Hebrew, 1982; American, 2006) and the nonfiction "Commander of the Exodus" (Hebrew, 1999; American, 2000). Although his 2003 memoir, "I Did It My Way," has not been translated into English, a very enjoyable excerpt in English about his time in Harlem in the late 1950s with Bird and Lady Day appeared last year in Zeek (http://www.zeek.net/710fiction/).

Kaniuk's writing is often like an explosion of words, like a stream-of-consciousness jazz riff, but his work circles back on painful incidents, moments of conflict between man and woman, among family, between Jew and Arab. From his first novel, about the murder of innocent Arab men, women and children by Israeli soldiers, Kaniuk's work has often exposed the uglier sides of the Israeli psyche.

Kaniuk often returns to the subject of the conflicts between Israeli and Arabs. In "Confessions of a Good Arab" (Hebrew; 1985; English, 1988) Kaniuk wrote: "He came to the conclusion which we are only beginning to understand today, that there is no hope at all, that the tragedy begins long before the historians can locate it. That the fanaticism was inevitable. That the country was foreign to both nations, which invented national movements which did not stem directly from their histories, but only from their sufferings."

"The Last Jew" is generally considered Kaniuk's masterpiece. It comes with a blurb from his friend, the late Susan Sontag, that reads: "Of the novelists I have discovered in translation ... the three for whom I have the greatest admiration are Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Handke, and Yoram Kaniuk."

I couldn't finish "The Last Jew" -- the book overwhelmed me and gave me a headache, which could well be a sign of its brilliance (I confess to having had similar experiences with other masterpieces), but better readers than I have adjudged it a great work.

One of Kaniuk's most surreal works is "Adam Resurrected," a film version of which, starring Jeff Goldblum and directed by Paul Schrader, is about to open. "Adam" is a former Berlin circus performer, a clown haunted by his Holocaust experience, living in a mental asylum in Israel, who finds a connection with a child who believes he is a dog. Although I have not seen the film, it was screened at this year's Telluride Film Festival and was hailed as the finest performance of Goldblum's career.

Kaniuk has been hailed as a novelist of Tel Aviv (as opposed to Jerusalem), the secular city that he has imbued with all the surrealism of Israeli existence.

Daphne Meijer, in "Jewish Writers of the 20th Century," writes "Kaniuk has not become the general public's pet. He is a writer's writer; his novels are complex examples of highly evolved literary craftsmanship, non-linear in structure and full of metaphor. Yet his work is very humorous ... in this respect there is a connection between his writing and the works of many masters in the European tradition of the absurd and the surreal."

Currently, Kaniuk also writes a provocative column for Yediot Akronot that can be read in English on ynetnews.com -- in recent columns, he has chastised the Orthodox Shas party for caring more about money than about Jerusalem; argued for keeping Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in office (rather than letting Bibi Netanyahu find a way back in); called Yad Vashem a "Disneyland" and said "the Germans don't owe Israel a dime."

At AJU's Celebration of Books, Kaniuk will speak about his life and the process of writing, followed by a book signing.

Consider that modern Hebrew is a relatively new phenomenon, not much more than a century old, and that in Israel's 60 years it has fostered a substantial a body of literature by world-class novelists and poets such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Yehuda Amichai. That Kaniuk stands among their ranks but has yet to become familiar to American audiences speaks, perhaps, to the richness and depth of Israel's literary landscape. This weekend's appearance, therefore, offers an opportunity to correct this and see and hear an Israeli original doing what he does best -- speaking his mind.

Yoram Kaniuk will speak at AJU's Celebration of Jewish Books on Sun., Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. in English, and at 12:30 p.m. in Hebrew.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.


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