Between Life and Death

Yoram Kaniuk; Bar­bara Har­shav, trans.
  • Review
By – September 7, 2016

Yoram Kaniuk, who passed away in 2013, was for a long time the enfant ter­ri­ble of a gen­er­a­tion of Israeli writ­ers that includ­ed Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Gross­man. Less known to Amer­i­can read­ers than he deserves, Kaniuk is a strange and orthog­o­nal writer, nev­er lin­ing up with the pieties his audi­ence might be expect­ed to har­bor. An implaca­ble crit­ic of reli­gion, he most famous­ly he peti­tioned the Israeli gov­ern­ment to remove his sta­tus as a Jew for reli­gious pur­pos­es. In dis­ag­gre­gat­ing reli­gion from nation­al­i­ty, Kaniuk blazed a bureau­crat­ic path that oth­ers have fol­lowed, one that is com­mon­ly known as lehitka­niuk in his honor.

Between Life and Death is very dif­fer­ent than the large and ambi­tious books that built Kaniuk’s canon, which include such clas­sics of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture as Adam Res­ur­rect­ed (1971)and The Last Jew (2006). This lat­est book, pub­lished by Rest­less Books and ably trans­lat­ed by Bar­bara Har­shav, takes as its sub­ject Kaniuk’s four-month near-death inter­lude in a Tel Aviv hos­pi­tal, which includ­ed long stretch­es in a coma. The book’s style embod­ies this betwee­ness”, pro­ceed­ing with the asso­cia­tive log­ic of an anes­thet­ic rather than an autho­r­i­al con­scious­ness. Kaniuk is in his head and out of his body, often at the same time. While there are flash­es of insight, com­ing back from death may have been among the strongest expe­ri­ences of my life,” as a whole the book presents chal­lenges to even the most sym­pa­thet­ic of read­ers. There is much rep­e­ti­tion, and the tone is dif­fi­cult to parse — some­where between an extend­ed rever­ie, a diary, and a hos­pi­tal live-blog. It is also marred by Kaniuk’s bit­ter­ness to any man­i­fes­ta­tion of Judaism, an oppo­si­tion that comes off here as small and nar­row rather than high-mind­ed­ly polem­i­cal. Kaniuk’s wife and daugh­ters, who stand watch by his bed­side, remain gauzy and blurred fig­ures, more pres­ences than people.

There is some­thing unde­ni­ably admirable in the work to turn suf­fer­ing into art. The final words of Kaniuk’s epi­logue con­sti­tute a good­bye, rather than a see you lat­er: And now, as an old man with can­cer and a her­nia and a destroyed bel­ly, I leave you.” We are poor­er for Kaniuk’s final exit, and remind­ed that the time between life and death is a wisp of a shad­ow that pass­es in the blink of an eye.

Relat­ed Content:

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

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