Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoram Kaniuk's Bito, His Daughter

Yoram Kaniuk is not as well-known an Israel writer as Amos Oz or Y.B. Yehoshua, despite most of his novels being published in English by major US publishing houses.  He belongs to the same generation as Oz and Yehoshua, born in pre-Palestine Israel, but unlike them old enough to take part in the War of Independence.  He was shot in the legs by an Englishman in a kaffiyeh and sent to New York City to recuperate.  There he stayed for sometime, painting, writing, and absorbing the Greenwich Village post-war artistic culture. 

His early novels were straight up narratives with difficult subject matter, like Himmo, King of Jerusalem, about a solider wounded in the War of Independence, his legs and arms blown off and blinded, yet somehow still alive.  Himmo becomes involved with a young nurse named Hamutal, and their "relationship," tortured and bizarre, becomes a type of metaphor for the evolving sense of Zionist identity in the new state of Israel.

Later, Kaniuk's novels would take less traditional forms.  At this point, a wider audience outside of Israel (and even within) seemed to allude him, despite the fact that some of A.B. Yehoshua's most beloved novels have non-traditional forms, like The Lover, A Late Divorce. But by and large, Yehoshua does not try to carry that complexity to the level of sentence structure and syntax.  A.B.'s forms are complex, but his language is more traditional. 

This is not the case with Kaniuk, who produces complexity on nearly every level.  Take his novel His Daughter, a novel with elements of traditional storytelling, fantasy, mystery and crime genres rolled into one package. This makes for a layered and difficult novel (although not as difficult as some of his other recent works), with dense sections of dialogue and quickly shifting moods, styles, and levels of narrative intensity.  Kaniuk takes a plastic form like the novel and uses it with great dexterity.

So, only a careful, patient reader should try this novel. But if such a reader does, the rewards are plentiful. This work is a deep investigation of the nature of Israeli society, the Zionist vision, the changing nature of a culture and a society under rapid transformation. Only a complex narrative can mirror such a complicated society. Kaniuk leaves no easy answers to the  questions his work raises. We get mystery and density, and the feeling, even after having read 293 pages, that the last work has not been said.

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