Pro­fes­sor Schif­f’s Guilt

  • Review
By – July 25, 2023

Pro­fes­sor Agur Schiff is stuck in an unnamed West African coun­try, on tri­al for the crimes of his slave-trad­ing great-great-great-great grand­fa­ther. He finds him­self hav­ing to answer for the hor­rors per­pe­trat­ed by his kin, whom he regards with an ambiva­lent mess of pride and shame. Told from sev­er­al per­spec­tives, this satir­i­cal nov­el moves between the protagonist’s tes­ti­mo­ny before the Spe­cial Tri­bunal, the months lead­ing up to his arrest, and his ancestor’s history.

Pro­fes­sor Schiff’s Guilt skew­ers the exoti­ciz­ing west­ern gaze that homog­e­nizes the Glob­al South. Tel Aviv res­i­dent Agur Schiff — who hap­pens to share a name with the book’s author — strug­gles to see any con­nec­tion between him­self and his col­o­niz­ing fore­fa­ther. But a present-day par­al­lel nar­ra­tive reveals that Schiff isn’t free of a sub­ju­gat­ing gaze. In the months before his tri­al, he falls for Lucile Tet­teh-Ofo­su, an African migrant who becomes his house clean­er in an extreme­ly under-the-table set­tle­ment with an attor­ney who owes him mon­ey. In fact, this lawyer offers Lucile up in lieu of cash, cre­at­ing a slave-trad­ing dynam­ic from the very first chap­ter. Even though Lucile bewitch­es Schiff, he nev­er­the­less came to know her in a deal that effec­tive­ly used her as a token of trade.

Things become even more com­pli­cat­ed when Lucile meets Schiff’s father-in-law, a lone­ly 104-year-old man named Mordechai who has tra­versed the whole of Africa. In fact, his house is clut­tered with relics from his trav­els. This cen­te­nar­i­an is enam­ored with Lucile — six­ty years his junior — and vies for her hand in mar­riage. Quick­ly, both Schiff and his father-in-law become car­i­ca­tures of West­ern col­o­niz­ers who exalt this woman for her allur­ing dif­fer­ences with­out actu­al­ly see­ing her as a three-dimen­sion­al per­son. Rather, they view her as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of all that is mys­ti­fy­ing and for­eign.”

Upon learn­ing that the slave-trad­ing Schiff took a dis­abled child bride from Para­mari­bo, the read­er finds that a per­son with good inten­tions may also have an absolute mis­un­der­stand­ing of what it means to respect someone’s humanity.

And Schiff (the author, not the char­ac­ter) makes this mis­un­der­stand­ing quite enter­tain­ing. His prose ren­ders Schiff (the char­ac­ter) into a bright-eyed tourist who sees him­self as one of the good guys, yet who alien­ates the Glob­al South again and again. This snide­ly fun­ny nov­el sug­gests that even the most well-mean­ing, edu­cat­ed peo­ple are prone to show­ing their inner colonizer.

While it’s uncer­tain how much the tit­u­lar Schiff and his author actu­al­ly have in com­mon, the read­er can’t help but won­der whether the writer car­ries the same guilt.

Elana Spi­vack is a writer and jour­nal­ist in New York City where she lives with her tuxe­do cat, Stanley.

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