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 …

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