Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review of Kaniuk's The Last Jew


By Yoram Kaniuk

Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav

Writers tend to believe in the power of literature to convey the greatest human truths. But The Last Jew , a masterful novel by the renowned Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk, is based on a lie -- and the lie is a poem. First published more than 20 years ago and newly translated into English, the novel's preoccupations are only more timely today: the exploitation of catastrophe and the deceptiveness of art.

Obadiah Henkin, a Tel Aviv teacher of Hebrew in the 1950s, is mourning the loss of his son Menahem in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Henkin is a founder of his local Committee for Bereaved Parents, devoted to honoring fallen soldiers and hosting somber visits from Israeli political figures and famous European authors. His wife shuns both the committee and Henkin himself, loathing what she sees as Henkin's attempt to turn their son into a national myth. One day Henkin is stunned out of his grief when he meets Boaz Schneerson, a veteran of his son's unit, who offers him a poem that he says Menahem wrote before his last battle. The poem astounds Henkin, rejuvenating his aging faith in his son, in his country and even in himself.

But Boaz, a shell-shocked veteran embittered by how his survival has excluded him from the national nobility of the fallen, is actually running a business. Surrounded by parents clamoring for memories of their lost children, he produces fake poems, letters and forgotten personal effects. As decades pass, his fraudulent enterprise expands into a kind of Memorials, Inc., for the fallen of all of Israel's wars.

The forged poem is only one piece of the novel's edifice of constructed memory. Its cornerstone is Boaz's father, Ebenezer Schneerson, the self-proclaimed "Last Jew." A native of pre-state Israel whose search for a lost father led him to Europe at exactly the wrong time, the senior Schneerson is a Holocaust survivor who discovers that his trauma has sparked both a curse and a miracle. He has forgotten everything about his personal past, including his own son -- but his memory has inexplicably expanded to include every fact and thought in the entire Jewish experience, from ancient tracts to medieval pilgrimage tales to Freud's theories to the canon of Yiddish literature to the names of every pogrom victim in Europe. But rather than being respected, the Last Jew becomes, literally, a nightclub act, performing in a newly liberated Europe for audiences eager to weep for the civilization they helped destroy.

The novel is composed mainly of transcriptions of tapes that a German writer who befriends Henkin makes of Ebenezer's memories, hoping to write a novel about Ebenezer that would also be an epic account of Jewish identity. The project, of course, is doomed to failure; as we learn well before the last page, art is the opposite of truth.

At the heart of Kaniuk's novel is the problem of institutionalizing private memories -- something particularly resonant in Israel, where annual memorial days are observed through nationwide moments of silence and committees like Henkin's are far from fictional. Among a people that sustained itself on written memories until the Zionist era and continues to be plagued with threats of destruction, can one ever have the luxury of mourning a private loss without recording it as part of some larger communal story?

Yet the questions the novel raises are also universal, especially in a world wracked with televised disasters. Is it possible to create the myths we need to give meaning to catastrophe without exploiting the people who perished? What drives the desire to turn our lives into stories at all? Kaniuk recognizes our urge for life-as-narrative and mocks it. One of the book's most delicious moments comes near the end, when an Israeli army officer orders each soldier to produce a poem to be kept on file in case of his death.

The Last Jew is a true work of art, free from emotional manipulations, but Kaniuk's surrealistic style places large demands on the reader's attention, making the characters' voices harder to follow than necessary. And the novel is as comprehensive as the Last Jew himself: The genealogy of the Schneersons is recounted in excessive detail, extending across continents with the scattered offspring of a philandering forebear who wooed women with poetry. But for those willing to meet these stylistic challenges, Kaniuk offers an incredible reward: a new way of understanding not only Jewish and Israeli identity, but also the possibilities and limitations of a collective unconscious -- and the construction of memory itself.

Dara Horn is the author of "The World to Come" and "In the Image."

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