• Email
  • Print

Troubling Comedian

Rockinghorse

by Yoram Kaniuk, translated by Richard Flantz
Harper & Row, 408 pp., $12.50

Adam Resurrected

by Yoram Kaniuk, translated by Seymour Simckes
Harper & Row, 356 pp., $4.95 (to be published in April) (paper)

A novelist whose first book was published here seventeen years ago can hardly be called “new,” but Yoram Kaniuk is new to me and a writer who should, I think, be more widely known. His first two books—The Acrophile (1961) and Himmo, King of Jerusalem (1969)—are out of print, but Adam Resurrected (1971) will soon be reissued in paperback, and his new novel Rockinghorse has just appeared. Both in their different ways provide evidence of what seems clearly a writer of remarkable gifts.

Kaniuk is a Palestine-born Israeli who writes in Hebrew, but he lived in New York from 1950 to 1961, and his outlook and manner are decidedly international. This causes occasional problems in the English version of Adam Resurrected, where his translator Seymour Simckes has found a clear and plain style for narrative passages and most of the dialogue, but occasionally falls into a curiously strained and dated lingo.

Nope, never, not a chance.” Adam tries to inject some composure into his words. “It’s me, Grossie baby. I won’t learn. Your eyes work, don’t they? I’m back, Grossie boy, did you miss me?”…

Your father was hip, but you’re square.”

Whether the blame lies with the novelist or with his translator, this is strange talk for a German-born Jew, with a degree in philosophy from Heidelberg, who’s never been to America.

Yet for all the perils of its mid-Atlantic locution, Adam Resurrected is a moving and highly original novel. Adam Stein was spared from the Holocaust because his death-camp commandant recognized him as a famous circus clown and kept him alive to entertain the other victims—including Adam’s wife and daughter—who were on their way to destruction. Adam fully knew how ambiguous his situation was; on the one hand, he protected his people from knowing what awaited them in the “showers,” but he was also maintaining order for his terrible masters and even could be thought of as luring the victims to their deaths. The sign of his degradation is his ineradicable memory of playing dog to amuse Commandant Klein.

To be a dog, Adam later reflects, is no longer to be a Jew, just as for Klein, who after the war takes the name Weiss and lives on quietly in Berlin with Adam’s contemptuous help (he brings him money wrapped in condoms), to be a Jew is perhaps no longer to be a Nazi. But Adam faces up to his horrifying history only in 1958, when he comes to Israel in search of his second daughter, Ruth, who has somehow survived the war, emigrated, and married there. Without warning, her husband brings him to a cemetery, shows him Ruth’s fresh grave, and commands him to “make her laugh” as he had her mother and sister on the way to their own deaths. Poor Adam tries to do so; he reverts to his dog routine, and escapes into madness—and into an Israeli sanitarium, set in an arid desert.

Much of Adam Resurrected takes place in this luxurious institution endowed by a vulgar millionairess from Cleveland. Here Adam, a psychopathic genius, presides over a demented kingdom. He encourages the resident French chef, has a secret cache of fine liquor, wins passionate service, sexual and otherwise, from a glacial nurse, fights his psychiatrist, Dr. Gross, to a standstill, and plays benevolent tyrant to his fellow inmates. Eventually he achieves a tentative recovery by “fathering” what he thinks is a dog, which gradually learns to type touchingly illiterate messages on an Olivetti, to stand upright, to feel love, and finally to speak. In this mysterious novel we only learn when Adam does that the dog is really a psychotic young boy named Uriel Bloch who has outdone even Adam in fantasizing doghood; he has been brought to Adam as a therapeutic device of Dr. Gross’s, one which at last works.

But this is to oversimplify a richly complicated narrative and to misrepresent its immediate effect. We only gradually accumulate the facts and meanings of Adam Stein’s story, by puzzling out the connections between his disconnected musings, his flashes of memory, his encounters with the other lunatics, and their own woeful stories. A young woman named Schwester (who has a sister) feels that insect bites are acts of love, until a band of Bedouins show her the real thing; Arthur Fine, a “survivor,” can’t remember his escape from the Germans but remembers all too clearly how, as an Israeli bureaucrat, he burned first his own files and then his daughter’s hand in an oven; Wolfovitz has a child, hidden from the Nazis in a low Polish cellar in which she could only sit upright, who was mutilated as she grew taller and her head was slowly crushed against the ceiling.

Woven into these intersecting histories is a troubling image of Israel itself as an insane asylum, and even a death camp. At the book’s most frightening and moving moment, Adam converts the inmates’ Purim play into a “ballet of the numbers,” a ghastly parody of morning exercises in the camps, in which all raise their arms to reveal the tattoos that still identify them and their sufferings more surely than their unstable “real” identities can do:

Now let everybody roll up his sleeve,” screams Adam, and they all obey. Each numbered arm is stretched up high. “Yes, that’s the way. Strain your muscles. I want to see a smile on your faces. No tears. It doesn’t hurt. It hurt once, but not any more. Yes, lovely, I see that you are all smiling.” Miles keeps playing, that bastard. Miles lived in Palestine, expelled Arabs, conquered, smashed, built a crazy democracy with faulty telephones. We came to you, my friend, and you accepted us with open arms, like a fool. That was a fatal error, the Law of Return will beget the end, we shall cause the soil to rot, pollute the atmosphere. We shall remember….

Adam, the first man, awakens from his dream of horror and returns from the insane asylum to a world he finds less than good. He sees a bunch of balloons with Mickey Mouse printed on them, with a Ben-Gurion balloon mixed in, and punctures the latter with his pocket-knife. Adam Resurrected is filled with the tensions between the native-born pioneers who created Israel and the immigrant survivors who came to it for refuge. Though the Jew who becomes a dog and destroys his family finally regains sanity through his love for Uriel, the dog-child he finds in the asylum, his resurrection seems as provisional and uncertain as the reborn nation he must, with considerable reluctance, continue to live in.

Adam Stein may, as we see him from the outside, have a little too much charm and chutzpah, a little too much magic in his powers over other people, to be a wholly convincing figure of collective agony. The hero of Rockinghorse, Aminadav Sussetz, has plenty of impudence too, but charm is the least of his problems, and he seems a better articulation of the deep divisions within the Israeli consciousness than Adam could be.

Sussetz (“rockinghorse” in Hebrew) shares some of his biography with Yoram Kaniuk. Born in Palestine in 1930, he fought in the 1947 war. After some time as a merchant seaman and an art student in Paris, he settled in New York around 1950, married, had a child, and tried without much luck to get established as a painter. Sussetz has long been playing with imaginary pasts that could make him more interesting to himself—birth in Germany, a seventh-generation Palestinean grandmother with an Arab lover, an uncle who was a mighty hunter of lions. Rockinghorse begins with Sussetz wracked by the need to be in two places at once, to be both a devoted husband and father and a libertine, a cosmopolite and an Israeli, his own man and other people’s too. So in 1967, after a hasty affair with his daughter’s first-grade teacher, he leaves New York and sails for Israel, “saved and alone.”

Sussetz’s split self lies close to madness, and it is conveyed in a fractured prose of impressions, memories, and associations that recalls the mental life of the lunatic genius Adam Stein. At first this prose seems affected, annoying in its randomness, an unwelcome barrier between Sussetz and the interest and concern we might want to feel for him:

To walk along the boulevard. People in the shade of trees and sky. Sun between clouds. David Bustanai’s house. With a bright garden, among large buildings. To cross Allenby Street at the corner of the boulevard. To drink gazoz at Rovanenko’s. To see the Tel Aviv Museum with Father’s frames. The lovely building with the iron gate. To note with amazement that there’s no more fire brigade tower on the corner and no police station. And to walk in Herzl Street. What for. And Ansberg leans his bicycle against a post and says, Upstairs here there lives a woman with squashed breasts who screamed thief! ganev! and wept bitterly. And I was inside her. And she screamed ganev! ganev! as if in delight. And I wasn’t at all. To see the window with a flowerpot and gray curtains. And beside it a sign saying Diplomad Pedicurist…. Behind the yard there is still the Eden Cinema. Then they’d shown The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson. Paper fragments of him were opposite my house in the street of the professional mourners. Man, says Hermann Hesse, is a momentary intersection of nature. And for a moment I was united with the heretofore.

This looks suspicious—visual details that seem too general for a painter, a parading of place-names that makes us think of a self-conscious tourist, the rather cute conjoining of Jolson and Hesse, a dependence on loose associations that can let anything follow anything else, a softness in the controlling consciousness that’s disappointingly unlike the strongly individualized interior monologues of Joyce or Faulkner.

But as the novel proceeds, one gets used to Kaniuk’s method. Ami Sussetz, who thinks bitterly of himself as an “acrostic of passages,” gravitates in his consciousness toward psychological and moral sense even as he explores-dislocation and madness. The flow of his mind is patterned upon a number of decisive memories whose meanings gradually emerge—his childhood encounter with a young street Arab who burned a cat with a cigarette and who, encountered years later in New York after a career of political terrorism, wants only to go to Wyoming and be a cowboy; the story of how Ami’s father, a cultivated German Jew who hoped for a musical career, smashed his violin after hearing a master perform, and became a maker of picture frames; the terrible death in battle of his comrade Nahum; making love for the first time with his future wife in the bathroom at an absurd and orgiastic New York artists’ party.

These threads begin to assemble themselves when Sussetz returns to Israel, to find his father dying in proud silence, his reproachful mother still impossible to please, the country itself possessed by an affluent vulgarity and moral slackness that scarcely accord with its highminded sense of its history and mission. The ambiguities of the national condition are well suggested by his weird schoolboy friend Ansberg, who is compiling a “fornication census,” recording all the sexual misconduct he can find (which is a lot) even while he tries to restore loving tenderness to the world by slipping into the beds of unknown housewives after their husbands leave for the office.

In a time and place that offer him neither religion, patriotism, family, or career, Sussetz resolves to make a movie. He was born on the very day in 1930 that The Jazz Singer opened in Tel Aviv, and the coincidence seems significant, especially since the film’s title in Yiddish was The Mad [Meshugana] Singer. Jolson’s story of worldly failure and success and the redemptive love of father and son points Sussetz toward his own film, which will deal with his own birth on that day in 1930 (with Ansberg playing Sussetz père!). The project is riddled with fraud—he and Ansberg concoct a phony script based on Ansberg’s own rather more sensational life and sell the rights to two different producers. (They are saved from justice by the general amnesty that follows the 1967 war.)

But Sussetz has serious intentions. He means to show the film to his dying father as an act of love and homage, an assurance that something creative survived his own violent rejection of art; for Ami himself it will re-establish identity, re-creating the Eretz Israel he was born in and greatly prefers to the commercialized, jingoistic place he takes the contemporary nation to be. Then he will destroy the film, as his father destroyed his fiddle, in a final defiant gesture of independence and imaginative contempt. A little taken aback by hearing that modern film won’t burn, he determines to bury it nevertheless.

This ingenious act of simultaneous self-invention and self-destruction is however frustrated by the strange tendency of life, like language, to make sense. His identity gets re-established without the movie’s help. His father dies after seeing not the film, but Sussetz’s loving wife and daughter, who have flown to join him in Israel with refrigerators, televisions, and lots of money—his paintings, especially one of his wife on a toilet seat in commemoration of their first meeting, have become hot items on the New York market. His mother makes her peace with him more or less, and Ansberg, back from the war, gives up his census and gets married. Sussetz decides to take over his father’s frame shop. The movie is shown publicly and seems to him empty and meaningless; it makes him want to die, but the critics love it, and we see him, in the end, on his way (not too reluctantly) to the Venice Film Festival and possible prizes.

Both Rockinghorse and Adam Resurrected show Yoram Kaniuk to be essentially a comic writer, for all the grimness of his subjects. His people move, as in some perilously self-mocking Jewish joke, from uneasy failure to uneasy success, from absurd fragmentation to a composure that’s equally absurd but may at least be able to let life go on, from a sense that they have been betrayed by God, man, and themselves, to a sense, which I suppose lies at the center of serious comedy, that since betrayal is part of the continuing order of things, even it somehow sustains us. Behind Adam Stein’s wretchedness stands the Holocaust, behind Ami Sussetz’s stand many other things, including the fact that he missed that great tragedy himself. But Kaniuk’s way of apprehending both of them savingly asserts that intelligent, sensitive people can survive, if just barely, the guilt that life and history impose on them, that the duties of the imagination are larger than the duties of social and political identity. I would suspect that Kaniuk’s writings are troubling to many contemporary Israelis, but that seems all the more reason for them, as well as us, to admire him.

  • Email
  • Print