Fact and Fiction by Yoram Kaniuk.
So it was with some trepidation that I tackled two books by Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk recently published in English by Grove Press, Commander of the Exodus, a biography or history of the exploits of a pre-state Israeli hero, and Adam Resurrected, actually a reissue of Kaniuk's most well-known novel written some 35 years ago. The Kaniuk novel is surely a tour de force. But what might I expect from a novelist, albeit a practicing journalist, indulging a penchant for political-biography?
The political nonfiction of many contemporary Israeli novelists of note is decidedly one-sided. The big three, for example -- Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman -- are confirmed leftists and militant peaceniks. (I'm not sure where Yehoshua Kenaz and Aharon Appelfeld stand on every current issue. Suffice it to say, parenthetically, that these five plus Yoram Kaniuk are among the most internationally celebrated of living novelists and represent an achievement of tiny Israel that is without equal.)
David Grossman wrote a political broadside recently that urgently calls for Israel's return to peace negotiations with a menu of even more concessions to the Palestinian Arabs. And this in the face of the violence of Intifada II launched by the Palestinians despite, perhaps because of, Ehud Barak's generous compromise proposals, unprecedented in Israeli annals, for a final settlement. Yoram Kaniuk is also a peacenik (no criticism intended of either writer). Consequently, when I took hold of Commander of the Exodus, I somehow expected a muckraking biography that would attempt to prove, in the spirit of current revisionist historians of Israel, that one of Israel's founding heroes was less than heroic and, in fact, ethically and morally suspect. The historians I allude to, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, and others, have launched herculean efforts to put into question Israel's original validity. They unearth heaps of supposed injustices piled by Israel's founding generation on the Arabs of Palestine. So what was I to expect from Kaniuk in this biography? In 1997, the president of the French National Assembly conferred a human rights award upon Kaniuk and Emile Habibi, a deceased Arab Israeli writer, for their work and writings together on behalf of accommodation between two states with Jerusalem as joint capital. Mme. Souha Arafat participated in the ceremony. Nothing wrong, I suppose, with this (Kaniuk has also received Israel's Bialik Prize and the President's Prize), but I braced myself for a hatchet job on the tough hero of the refugee ship Exodus.
What a surprise! If criticism can be levied against this book, it is that it wallows in hagiography, unrelenting praise and glorification of its hero that may very well pall on some readers hankering for a more nuanced view of human character. But first, a short summary:
Yossi Harel, a sixth-generation Jerusalemite born in 1919, grew up to become a combination of Sergeant York and a civilian John Paul Jones in the service of homeless Jewish survivors of the concentration camps in Europe and of Israeli independence. While still in his teens and twenties, he fought with the precursors of the Palmach in the Haganah called the elite "Nomads" commanded by Yitzhak Sadeh, who was dubbed "the Jewish Garibaldi" by his cousin Isaiah Berlin; helped defend Hanita, the first Jewish settlement in upper Galilee that was founded in 1938 at the height of the Arab riots; engineered daring military sorties under the leadership of Orde Wingate against Arab positions; enlisted in the British army circa 1940 and participated in desert warfare against the Nazis; became a confidant and bodyguard of Chaim Weizmann in spite of the fact that the elder statesman was a compromiser and an ideological opponent; and finally, embarked on what was to become his legendary exploits -- the successive command between 1946 and 1948 of four broken-down ships carrying thousands of displaced Jewish refugees from Hitler's Europe to a sealed-off Jewish community under siege in Palestine. His ships, filled with starving, sick men, women, and children, ran the British blockade in the Mediterranean, were attacked by the British navy, and by and large, did not succeed in their immediate purpose since most of the refugees were apprehended by the British and exiled back to internment camps in Cyprus. The culminating voyage was on a tub of an unseaworthy American vessel renamed Exodus whose hapless human cargo fought with their bare hands against all odds and ended up in equal misery with their predecessors. Then why the lionizing of Yossi Harel, a quixotic character, to say the least?
Author Yoram Kaniuk states it bluntly at the very beginning of the biography:
The State of Israel was not established on May 15, 1948, when the official declaration was made at Tel Aviv Museum. It was born nearly a year earlier on July 18, 1947, when a battered and stricken American ship called President Warfield, whose name was changed to Exodus, entered the port of Haifa with its loudspeakers blaring the strains of "Hatikvah." The State of Israel came into existence before it acquired a name, when its gates were locked to Jews, when the British fought against survivors of the Holocaust. It came into existence when its shores were blockaded against those for whom the state was eventually designated.... (p. ix of the "Prologue")
This passage, so eloquent and even melodramatic in nature, is representative of Kaniuk's tone and attitude toward his hero and his material. Young Yossi Harel can do no wrong. If, as a youth, he leaves his parents and makes no attempt to see them for years, it is justified by glorious service in behalf of Zionism and in the fight for freedom. If he is judged a traitor by his Haganah comrades for deserting the battle against the British occupiers to join the British army during World War II, it is to fight for a greater cause. This move by Yossi seems justified to us in retrospect, but it caused no end of grief to his fellow fighters in the Yishuv. They are generally pictured as macho tough guys who were even contemptuous of the ragtag band of escapees from the shtetl whom they despised for their old ways and for ostensibly not fighting back against the Nazi murderers. Yossi, on the other hand, has his own epiphany:
At some hidden unknown moment, [Yossi Harel] the sabra sixth-generation Jerusalemite, the Hanita man, one of Wingate's commandos, became a Yid, an identity that some portion of Palestine Jewry understood but could not internalize until after the trial of Eichmann. (p. 53)
Would it be brazen of me to add that a significant portion of Israeli Jewry now refuses to understand a Yossi Harel and that this number includes several of Yoram Kaniuk's professional colleagues with whose political views he apparently sympathizes?
A final word or two on this biography. In spite of its unremitting tone of adulation, it grows on the reader. The scenes aboard the refugee ships are gripping, heart-rending; the battles with the British navy are beyond consolation. All these chapters are surely the work of a master of the language whose artistry even comes across in translation -- not a mean feat by any standard. This work puts a Leon Uris, author of a fictional Exodus, to shame, though I, for one, have nothing against a popular pedestrian writer whose heart is in the right place. Kaniuk, never pedestrian, grapples with ideology and national fate, if not with the complexities of human character, and this lifts his biography of Yossi Hard beyond the usual rah-rah writing about most war heroes. The book should serve as an antidote to those who condemn all military fighters and those who seek to besmirch the heroism that founded a nation of survivors.
I do have a serious complaint about one of Kaniuk's authorial decisions. The biographer writes the following astonishing paragraph in his Prologue:
Some portions of this book blend historical truth with imagination. I don't pretend that all the details are incontestable. But no detail, alone or in combination, can alter the total picture or full impact and historical significance of these events. This is the saga of Yossi Harel and the exodus from Europe. It is not a traditional biography, but it is absolutely based on the facts. (p. xii of the "Prologue")
I don't know how Kaniuk reconciles his statements that the book "blends historical truth with imagination" and that he doesn't "pretend that all the details are incontestable" with his final comment that this non-traditional biography "is absolutely based on the facts." Does he simply mean that a harmless conversation or two is reconstructed imaginatively? If so, why not say so? But why indulge in this petty deception in the first place in a biography that is not fiction and that involves a historical event so crucial to the soul of Israel?
A recent biographer of President Reagan was justly pilloried for introducing himself into the president's story in venues where the biographer never had been and never had spoken. The melange of fact and fiction in a biography has set a bad precedent. I'm willing to take Kaniuk at his word that his fertile imagination employed in delineating a "detail" here and there in the saga of Yossi Hard and the Holocaust refugees does no injury whatsoever to Jewish history and to the sacred and valid cause of Israel, but I cannot commend him for adopting this postmodern dalliance with the truth.
Kaniuk's novel, Adam Resurrected, functions in a wholly different realm of literary creativity. The writer is the same writer. His concern for the fate of concentration camp victims who are at the heart of the story is the same concern. But the method and the language and ultimately the meaning bear no comparison. The biography is straightforward, sequential, quotidian and this-worldly in feeling, however eloquent; the novel is convoluted, moving in every direction of time and place almost simultaneously, its language a barrage of near-hysterical rhetoric followed by patches of plain exposition, with most of the book written in the present tense as if happening now and forever.
Adam Stein, the Adam of the book's title, was a prominent circus clown and musician in Germany who escaped incineration in a Nazi concentration camp by entertaining his tormentors. He was the commandant's dog, a reference lost in the English title of the book. The Hebrew title (Adam ben kelev), Adam son of a dog, reflects the novel's abiding confusion of dogs and human beings under unbearable duress. Adam witnessed the murder of members of his own family in the camp, let alone hundreds of others, but he clowned on to survive. The result is a corrosive dementia that lands him in an Israeli insane asylum in the Negev where most of the novel takes place. He had been in and out of this and other institutions before, but this time, when the book begins, he is returned to the Institute for Rehabilitation and Therapy in Arad as a result of his attacking his beloved landlady. This asylum, founded by a wealthy American widow equally deranged, is a haven exclusively for concentration camp survivors. The cast of odd characters in this institution is inebriating, if not anguishing, from nurse Jenny who seems to be in love with Adam to an inmate named Miles Davis who fancies himself a jazz musician and dreams up appearances with Charlie Parker in Harem nightclubs.
The author's omniscient point of view encompasses the mind of dozens of such characters though Adam holds center stage, both outwardly and inwardly. His thoughts fly from his room to the concentration camp in a millisecond; he confuses the camp commandant with current personages in Israel; his twin brothers sits on the windowsill of his room almost permanently; he, Adam, is man and dog by turns; and a grown child in the asylum on all fours is dog and child at Adam's beck and call. A reader is exhausted, never exhilarated, by this overabundance of feverish description, never sure of what is reality and what is fantasy, always moved by the quintessential tragedy of the Holocaust that has made an insane asylum out of the world that barely survived this ineffable evil.
Superfcial comparisons with other books about asylums like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest will not do. Admittedly, the prevailing thesis in such books - that the sane overseers of the asylum are crazier than the inmates - is not absent from Kaniuk's novel. But it is, by no means, the whole story. Kaniuk's novel travels a longer road with deeper ruts and no end in sight.
I could discuss literary method at even greater length. Susan Sontag is quoted on the back cover comparing Kaniuk with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Adam Resurrected certainly falls into the grab-bag category of magical realism whose leading light is Marquez. The comparison to the famed South American Nobel laureate is not inappropriate. Here is an example of the saturation of language so overpowering in this novel. Adam is feeding the dog-child candies in the asylum and immediately thinks of Commandant Klein's dog Rex in the concentration camp, his partner in doggish servility:
Take your hat off to the victors. Your hat? Who had a hat in that place? Rex had a hat. Came the holiday of Purim, and Commandant Klein decided that Rex should masquerade. How did he know it was time for Purim? From the underground radio of the Allies. That bastard, he listened to them.... Rex's Jewishness lasted for only an hour and he became again our good friend, our first-rate Aryan dog Rex. Heil! Yes, a chimney. Hoo-hoo-hoo. Who are you?... Oh, my tender monster, I'm going to open up all the gates for you -- the Gate of Pity, the Gate of Dung, the Gate of Lions. The Gate of Zion ... When the hospital was in Jaffa, Adam used to eavesdrop on the city kids. Those little Jews who had no idea what sort of miracle had saved them. One clay they would conquer all of Israel, the entire East, the whole world. They would raise their flag and rule the Universe. All because of that satanic promise: "For you and your children." But where are these children? Where is that pledge? Shhh, here come some immigrants. Hoo-hoo-hoo, who are you? Di-di-aspora Jews, on a chimneyed ship, a life-or-death trip, sailing from Diaspora. Ha-ha! Monster, take a candy and drop dead.... (pp. 93-94)
This is not easygoing, neither the references nor the horror engendered by the scene. The ending lines above, alluding to the immigrants aboard ship, in fact, prefigure the Kaniuk biography of Yossi Harel, but with quite a different emphasis. Event piles on event pitilessly in the novel, culminating in the escape of the inmates/survivors into the Negev desert to find God with Adam as their non-believing Moses. They become a media event with all Israel curiously following the wanderings of the lunatics who are ultimately returned to the sane/insane world. The novel ends with a letter written by Adam to his son-in-law, an Adam who claims to be finally cured and lives quietly in his own eternal Diaspora with the landlady whom he had once tried to kill.
Yoram Kaniuk wrote this masterpiece of Holocaust literature many years ago. In 1998, the Israeli-Russian theater group called "Gesher" performed a stage version of the novel at Lincoln Center. I did not see that performance; I only heard of it after the fact. I cannot conceive of a play that in two or three hours does justice to this book in all its internal drama and complexity. But who knows? Perhaps, though the world remains unsanctified, its theater artists can still perform miracles.
Adam Resurrected, the novel, is almost miraculous, and it more than deserves its current reappearance in English. Along with the biography of Yossi Harel, though to a lesser degree, and in spite of some shortcomings, it stamps Yoram Kaniuk as a writer of the first rank.
Commander of the Exodus, by Yoram Kaniuk. Translated from the Hebrew by Seymour Simckes. New York: Grove Press, 2000, 214 pp., $25, hardcover.
Adam Resurrected, a novel by Yoram Kaniuk. Translated from the Hebrew by Seymour Simckes. New York: Grove Press, 2000, 370 pp., $14, softcover.
LEO HABER's first novel, The Red Heifer, is slated for spring 2001 publication by Syracuse University Press. His poetry, short fiction, and articles on current affairs, literature, and music have appeared in a wide variety of journals. Mr. Haber is consulting editor at Midstream.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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