Yoram Kaniuk: "I Write Upside Down"

1948 is an astounding document, brilliant and scandalous and brave without trying to be brave. It is the story of how the Israeli writer-painter Yoram Kaniuk volunteered to put himself in the thick of battle after battle in Israel's 1948 War of Independence: weeping for the fellow soldiers he was shooting with, weeping for the enemy soldiers he was shooting at, rejoicing at life, grieving at life, getting seriously wounded, volunteering yet again, and in the meantime lusting, shyly, for just about every woman who crossed his path.

We decide to have a conversation about the book, his thirty-third, and  a hearty exchange of emails follows ("Hi Asa king of Israel did you get my letter after getting yours? please let me know where i can call you  Love from an old man YOURS !"). A  young Russian named Natasha meets me at my hostel and together we walk up the bright sunshine of Tel Aviv's boojie-but-somehow-still-bohemian Rothschild Boulevard, past the incongruous Bauhaus architecture, past the upscale chocolatier Max Brenner, past a middle-aged flower child singing an artless tune to herself in the crotch of a tree, past an intellectual pounding out Fats Waller on one of the pianos the city put out during the extended dry season. This is the lively world Kankiuk helped establish, for better or worse.

Inside his first-floor apartment I blink at the dark: brown furniture on a brown carpet, shades drawn. Oil paintings are everywhere, slightly askew, as are the brittle leather-bound books. It is a little hard to breathe in the airless living room as his beautiful wife glides about like an aged film star from a silent movie, wordlessly providing dishes of refrigerator-chilled pistachios and salted almonds. A white panama hat rests on a nearby chair, attesting to Kaniuk's former life as a free-spirited man about town, but the hat seems in retirement now as Kaniuk sits sunk in his couch, looking every bit his eighty-two years with his pale crinkled skin, his non-exerciser's tummy, his face that has settled into the sags of illness -- Kaniuk has been side-kicked by cancer, and the close brushes he's had with death over the past two or three years have left their marks. All the more dazzling, then, that when he smiles enough to show the small spaces between his teeth, which is often, his eyes are full of mischief; he looks like an ancient rogue who has managed to maintain his innocence.

The Barnes & Noble Review:  So are you happy to have published another book?

Yoram Kaniuk: Yes, but…[he smiles] everyone writes books now. Golf pros write books, children write books, dogs write books.…

BNR: Like your other memoirs, 1948 reads as though it was written in a headlong surge of heart and loins, with the urgency of a young man.  Are you going to confound us by saying you labored a week on each page?

YK: Worse: It took me fifty years to write it. I started to write my first draft in 1949 but people said you don't know how to write, so I started to paint. A few times I tried to come back to it but I couldn't find my way. But two years after I was almost dead [he was pronounced clinically dead during one of his three surgeries in 2009], I saw a small Israeli movie starring a girl who was the daughter of the man who operated on me. Such beautiful eyes! They were the eyes of her father the doctor, the last thing I remembered when he operated on me. When I came out of the movie I thought, now I know. Her eyes showed me the way. From then it was about a year to write this final draft.

BNR: You're still a romantic.

YK: Very much so. But I don't know what to do. [Young people] come to see me as a guru, I say oh God, what am I supposed to do with them?"  
 
BNR: When we met a few minutes ago you were quick to correct my pronunciation of your first name, though my ears couldn't distinguish the difference between "Yoram" and "Yorum." Are you sensitive because it took you so long to get your due as a writer, enduring decades of relative obscurity?

YK: Maybe this could be.

BNR: So your late-life lionization must cheer you, yes?  You published the well-received Life on Sandpaper last year, your frequent articles in the Israeli press suddenly spark hundreds of responses, 1948 was put on stage to great approbation, recently the French gave you the Order of Arts and Letters.

YK: It helps me but it doesn't cheer me. It's terrible that [public acclaim] took so long. Basically I don't know how to write; I write what I don't know what to write. I write upside down. All of a sudden it became accepted but I didn't change all these years. I have been on the side and now I'm in the middle! I don't know what to do with it!
 
BNR: In 1948 you write some of the most dreadful words I've ever read on what happened to the Arab residents during the War of Independence, how the Jewish refugees speaking a "babel of languages: Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, Greek, Yiddish, German…didn't walk toward the empty houses [in the predominately Arab city of Ramla in central Israel] -- they pounced on them!  They seized upon them hungrily, eagerly, while the [Arab] homeowners were standing by the distant fence, hoping to return." Among other things, I'm impressed by your courage to write these words.

YK: When I was young I was very much afraid. [But now] I'm not afraid of anyone. Why should I be?  I live in Israel where there's a war here, a war there. We get used to feeling unsafe. Also when I came out of being dead I lost all my fear. What else can you be afraid of?  Now I have another cancer but the prognosis is better because of a development made by a Nazi, ach it's a long story.
 
BNR: I'm also impressed by your evenhandedness. It's not just the Arabs being expelled; it's the refugees having desperate needs of their own. You write: "The sight of the Jews occupying every house was terrifying, but also possessed a kind of nonjudgmental human aesthetic. The last time that any of them had a house or apartment of their own was in the 1930s.... [They were] people beyond any moral accounting. They'd come from the garbage can of history…they were the wretched and they'd won because they were alive. They dismantled the barbed wire the way children unwrap a chocolate bar. They took and remained." To my knowledge this has never been written before, in quite this way.
        
YK: Not in this way. Eventually some of the Arabs did go back [to Ramla]. It's a mixed town today.

BNR: Do you regret any of your actions during the war?

YK: How can I regret? I was attacked all the time. What happened in Ramla, it was the whole conflict in a nutshell, and we saw it right in front of our eyes. This one had the right, that one had the right, it was a tragedy.

[Here the writer goes into a fit of coughing, followed by guttural breathing.]

BNR: It would be an understatement to say you're conflicted about the new society that has grown up around you since the War of Independence, to say nothing of the century since your mother first came from the Ukraine to settle here in 1910, one year after Tel Aviv was founded. You write that the heirs of this history "are idiots, fools, robbers, wicked people who've forgotten where they came from." Are you not optimistic about a resolution?

YK: Not very much. There's no solution here. It's a circus. The bombs are coming closer. I don't know what will happen. I'm so jealous of the French because they make so much effort to keep the culture, the language. We have nothing like that. Our government does not care about our heritage. So stupid, our government!

BNR: Does nothing give you hope?  
  
YK: I have a beautiful grandchild, two beautiful daughters, a beautiful wife. I'm writing articles, my books are all over, I'm doing fine. The weather is good. The fact that you brought along the beautiful Natasha is good. But I have no joie de vivre because I don't know if we can [continue to] exist.

 

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysley Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
In the Light of What We Know

Zia Haider Rahman's mystery of a brilliant Bangladeshi mathematician's past barrels through the Ivy League, London high finance, and spy-haunted Afghanistan in a page-turning tale of exile, intrigue and the price of friendship. A Discover Great New Writers selection.

The People's Platform

Once touted as the foundation for tomorrow's digital democracy, the Internet is increasingly ruled by a few corporate giants, while millions of contributors till its fields for free. Astra Taylor looks at why the web has failed to deliver a communitarian cyberscape, and offers a compelling case for restoring its original vision.

A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.