The Washington Post
The Last Jewby Yoram Kaniuk
Yoram Kaniuk has been hailed as “one of the most innovative, brilliant novelists in the Western World” (The New York Times), and The Last Jew is his exhilarating masterwork. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Last Jew is a sweeping saga that captures the troubled history and culture of an/i>/i>/i>/i>
Yoram Kaniuk has been hailed as “one of the most innovative, brilliant novelists in the Western World” (The New York Times), and The Last Jew is his exhilarating masterwork. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Last Jew is a sweeping saga that captures the troubled history and culture of an entire people through the prism of one family. From the chilling opening scene of a soldier returning home in a fog of battle trauma, the novel moves backward through time and across continents until Kaniuk has succeeded in bringing to life the twentieth century’s most unsettling legacy: the anxieties of modern Europe, which begat the Holocaust, and in turn the birth of Israel and the swirling cauldron that is the Middle East. With the unforgettable character of Ebenezer Schneersonthe eponymous last Jewat its center, Kaniuk weaves an ingenious tapestry of Jewish identity that is alternately tragic, absurd, enigmatic, and heartbreaking.
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Read an Excerpt
The Last Jew
By Yoram Kaniuk
Grove PressCopyright © 1982 Yoram Kaniuk
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe young man got off the bus full of soldiers and hoisted his kitbag onto his shoulder. The bus took off, ants returned from a reconnaissance mission bearing pieces of leaves and stubs of wood, he looked here and there and saw a house, went in and on the table were fresh vegetables, cigarettes, and sweet juices. A woman whose hair had changed from shiny black to gray sat him down at the vegetables and wanted to see him eat. He swallowed the fresh vegetables and smoked a few cigarettes and then he put a few packs into the kitbag and drank some sweet-and-sour juice. She asked him if he was hungry and he said no, no. Then a few girls appeared at the window on the way to a tent. He glanced at them and wanted to ask one of them a question but he didn't find the question and went on sitting. He tried to locate tangible memories in himself but everything was mixed up. Somebody he thought was a commander and wore a ribbon on his shoulder tab asked him a few personal questions and out of his kitbag the young man took papers he himself avoided looking at, and the man studied them, took out a payment chit, and gave it to him. And he said: You'll surely go home, but the young man didn't remember anymore if he had really thought of going home and suddenly he really didn't know where that home was, he onlynodded, picked up the kitbag, got into the jeep parked in the yard, and waited. A driver came and asked him what he was doing in the jeep. The young man said he wanted to go, never mind where. The driver looked at him with shrewd amazement and said: All of you came back fucked up, then he bent over the steering wheel and whispered: My brother went, I'm going to Gan Yavneh. The young man said: Take me to Marar. The driver started the jeep and didn't tell the young man that there was no more Marar. When they came the mountain was empty. The young man stood in the road, put down the kitbag, looked at what was a village, and thought: I live not far from here, but the distance between him and his home was now almost imaginary, he started retreating like somebody who truly dreaded knowing who he was.
Late in the evening he came to Tel Aviv and slept near the sanitation workers in the central bus station. A girl coming back from work stepped on him and he didn't say a word. In the morning he ate a bagel and drank lukewarm tea, went to the boulevard, and walked all along it. When he came to a bench that suited him he put the kitbag down again and sat down. He sat without moving from nine in the morning until five thirty in the evening. Most of the time he looked at the house opposite. The balconies were empty.
Children paraded by, carrying a blue and white flag, singing. He felt hungry but he didn't get up. Opposite a window opened and a woman looked at the sky and then closed the window. The cars passed with a frequency that made him try to understand its rules, but he couldn't. He touched the money in his pocket and thought maybe it was time to get up and go. But he didn't get up and he didn't go. A few downcast people walked along the boulevard. They held their hands clasped almost boldly behind their backs and their laces were down. They looked pale but maybe also full of imaginary, gaiety; they imagined they were happy. They stopped not far from him: one of them spoke of some great hour that had not been missed and he was glad about the words that sounded familiar to him. Then sights passed before his eyes that he wanted to forget and blood flowed from him and he planned the destruction of the house opposite. He'd place the TNT on the doorsill behind the security wall. Then he'd connect the detonator and then the red wire and the white wire and would retreat to the bench, hide behind the bench, and activate it. The house wouldn't cave in immediately, but would be opened and then, slowly slowly would sink. When he thought about the anonymous people who would die in the house he felt a distant affection for them, almost a yearning, and in the back of his mind the house was gaping and caving in, gaping and caving in, and he took a pack of cigarettes out of the kitbag and chain-smoked a few. Then, thirsty, he found the hose used to water the boulevard, turned on the faucet, and drank. A sanitation worker tried to stop him, but the young marl looked at him with controlled rage and the worker thought: Another one who came back, why do I need troubles. The celebration was in other places.
He thought maybe he should have stayed in camp and catch fresh vegetables another few days. The gloomy woman with silvery hair could probably have suckled him. Then he could have sung to her how they die in Bab-el-Wad. But he sits here on the bench on the boulevard and the day is nearing its end and he's not yet aware of anything profound, very important, bothering him. Somebody is sitting here on the bench, he thought, but who is really sitting here? The thick trees intertwined in the sky created a kind of gigantic purple bridal veil above his head. Their trunks were oval. The blossoms were also a bit blue. The kitbag was laid on the mown but almost dead lawn that smelled of mold and dying grass. He felt the wetness penetrate the back of the bench, which was catch by old wetness that hadn't dried. The tree facing him was all gnarled, leaves dropped slowly like a gentle rain of dead children. When he opened his eyes after a strained doze, he saw the foliage and the purple blue and could make out the distant sunset hidden by the buildings, and then he could also sense the redness and even see tatters of it. The sky growing dim, that whisper through the purple and blue nimbus. Once again he made out the wall of the house opposite. The wall was yellowish and tending to rust. On the balcony a woman now stood and hung up her little girl to dry. The little girl dropped and then jumped up with a cheer on what might have been a lawn hidden behind a low concrete wall. And the little girl laughed. What should have been terror was a loud rejoicing squashed to depression by a black Ford and the young man on the bench felt a certain regret, something repressed in the back of his mind wanted to see a woman drying a little girl. The woman vanished from the balcony, a door slammed, another car passed, and from Habima Theater appeared a young woman in a golden dress ignited by the twilight with a certain delicate charm, somehow connected with the joy of the little girl on the lawn. She stopped, looked at him, bent over, his legs heavy, his face tilted a little to the side, and said: Boaz, Boaz Schneerson, what are you doing here, and he didn't grasp that she was talking to him. He got up, picked up the kitbag, and from his angle of vision, when he stood up, a green pin now appeared clasping the young woman's hair, her lips looked spread in an amazement she was afraid to express properly, the lips were now clamped hard, maybe as an attempt to defend herself, the theater on the right seemed shrouded in concave light, so maybe he burst out laughing. The young woman said: You certainly don't even remember my name, and he nodded. Then he said: Not your name and not my name, even though you called me Boaz. She said: Boaz, you fell on your head, and he answered: Yes, I fell on my head. Suddenly I'm on the boulevard, what's on at Habima? She averted her face, looked at the thick-trunked sycamores, the sandy square, the building enveloped in gloom, and tried to recall. Her shoulder holding a purse moved, the purse slipped to the ground, her hand clenched uneasily, she tried to bend down to pick up the purse and yet as if she wanted to stay erect, the little girl opposite started throwing a ball against the wall. The spots above the foliage became dark, on her finger a gold ring was seen shining in the light of the prancing sunbeam, and he approached her, looked at the ring, put the kitbag down on the ground, and started pulling the ring off the finger. She said in pain, Stop, you're hurting me, but he said, I have to take off the ring. The ring was small and stuck to the finger and the young woman who was supposed to run stood still; a tiny spot of blood appeared flickering on her knuckle. She reached out her other hand, grabbed hold of him, pulled him to her in an attempt to get away from him; her eyes were bloodshot, the sky now grew dark fast and her hair clasped in a green pin dropped onto her face like a wild screen, for a moment she couldn't even see, in that second he managed to tear the ring off and her finger bled and when she slipped, he grabbed the finger, licked it, and cleaned off the blood. She slapped his face and shouted: You're really crazy Boaz Schneerson, you're a bad animal, but after he licked the blood from his lips, be said: You shouldn't get married with phony rings, that's what's killing me. She pushed aside her hair, pulled it back, picked up the purse, looked at her hand, felt dizzy, something seemed shaky even in her crotch, and she said: I'm not married to anybody, I wasn't wearing a wedding ring, once when I met you, you went to Hepzibah and bought me a cheap ring. It's funny you don't remember. You came from the settlement, maybe that was the same ring.
Things cleared up now and that could be seen on his rounded forehead, his hardened body; he thrust the ring in his pocket and picked up the kitbag. You're Minna, maybe we really did know each other, who knows. She leaned on a tree and didn't notice that a dripping resin stuck to her dress and she could see purplish leaves falling into her hair. She said, You said you'd write to me, where were you in the war? And he shook his head and said more to himself than to her, Where the rings were I was too, I've got a collection of gold teeth of dead Arabs. And an car that my friend, who died, would chew like gum. She tried to smile, the dark grew thicker, the change from evening to night was too swift. So my name's Boaz Schneerson, he said, here, take the ring from me and wait for me, I don't need phony rings. He held out the ring he took out of his pocket and started going away from her, he didn't turn around but walked backward, his face stuck to the sight of her, she stood leaning on the tree, her hair covered by a gloom drenched with leaves, and the little girl opposite yelled: Mama mama I've got to make peepee, a car sprayed water that may have been left there from the sloppy watering. In the thickening darkness the thick, gnarled, ancient sycamores looked like giant memorials, and she looked amazed at his back illuminated in the light in front of the theater that suddenly came on. The light didn't touch the kitbag or his hand and it looked like his hand were lopped off. She thought about a hand chewed like gum. The kitbag was the shadow of a dog that wasn't there. Close to the sand dunes the houses were scattered up to the row of cypresses whose outlines were now erased in the light crushed on their backs; for a moment, a stub of moon was seen above the house under construction and Boaz lit a cigarette, the smoke curled into the street that led nowhere. Maybe he once knew some girl who lived here, maybe it was on another boulevard. Minna's house with the red roof tiles. Everything was too blurred to be caught in a clear picture. She looked abandoned near the tree, far away, and he thought, maybe the little girl doesn't have gold teeth anymore. He stood still in the middle of the street and waited. Then the dull feeling of regret that had started filling him earlier was finished, his mouth was still full of the dampness of blood and then he smiled too. But the gloom covered his smile. When he saw the two headlights of the car heading for him, he thought it was the same car he saw before, even though maybe it wasn't. The lights moved toward him like the limbs of an enemy. And that's what he also said to Solomon on the way to Tel Aviv: Got to search for the enemy even after the war, to search for a proper defeat, and Solomon said: I'm not searching for any enemy, going to screw until the middle of next year, nonstop, stop only to eat fresh vegetables and halvah. The car came close and the driver, who had already seen Boaz, started honking his horn. The honking was mashed, from one of those broken horns, so Boaz felt generous toward the honking, but couldn't budge. The car approached and squealed to a stop; in the light of the streetlamp, it looked like a big ladybug. Another person was there who burst out of the kiosk hidden under an awning loaded with a heavy dropping of leaves. The kiosk light was dimmed by the black paint that hadn't been removed when the war ended; the person who came out of the kiosk held a pencil and a notebook and was writing something. On his lips was a smile he had brought with him from the kiosk and had nothing to do with what was going on outside. Boaz looked from the car to the person and back, wanted to smash the car, but the notebook in that man's hand excited him to some extent, as if all he wanted to do ever since he had come down from Jerusalem and knew that the battles were over was to see a person with a notebook and pencil. The driver got out of the car and started yelling. His voice was low, thick, and the words came out of his mouth a bit drawled, as if he could think even during anger. The person with the notebook and pencil immediately turned into a witness. You were standing here in the middle of the street, sir, and blocking traffic, he stated with angry politeness. And nobody asked him. Boaz, who was sparing with words and afraid to waste them, let the two men discuss it between themselves. He put down the kitbag and waited. The person with the notebook and pencil said: People like that should be run over, then they wouldn't stand in the middle of the street and stop traffic, and the driver said: If I hadn't stopped, he'd be dead, and he looked at Boaz, who didn't move from where he was standing in front of the car. The word dead inflamed the driver, who said it with a vague fear, and the person with the notebook and pencil now seemed dressed with rather exaggerated elegance, on his nose a scratch was clearly seen that could have come from an illegal chase of municipal tow trucks, thought Boaz and didn't know if he really had anything to do with those people, if he really spoke their language, if he understood what they were saying, and why the shoes of the person with the notebook and pencil had no laces. They spoke energetically to one another. The notebook in the man's hand shook and the driver wanted to go and then Boaz approached, with his strong hands that looked so delicate, he grasped the two heads, held them a moment as they were amazed, coupled them, moved one head away from the other, and then knocked the heads together. At the moment the smashing of the two skulls was heard, a car was seen trying to maneuver its way left. From there a wagon with a stooped carter was seen, and the wagon, unlike the car, passed by very slowly, the mare was old and weary and the carter was humming a song in Yiddish: There was a queen whose crown was sparkling, sparkling, there was a queen whose tomb was sparkling, sparkling. The two heads now moved away from one another, the car whose lights were still on blocked the picture of the cart and the other car, and after a silent pause, the cart and the car disappeared, the notebook dropped onto the ground and Boaz, illuminated by the lights, quickly tossed the kitbag into the car and when the driver yelled: What are you doing, sir? in his slow defensive voice, Boaz saw on his face the crushed expression of somebody who managed to stun with illogic but certainly with a certain methodicalness. I'm taking your auto, said Boaz, what I wanted was to lie on the street to ask forgiveness from your shoes. But his hands started hitting in rage, the little girl dropped from the balcony, that tranquility.
Minna wants him to remember her, the rage stunned him, a rage that brought a ring down on Minna, I'm sorry, he said, and when he jumped into the car, he yelled: My name is Boaz, but he should have said: I'm Boaz, he started the car and began driving. The stunned driver stood there next to the person with the notebook and pencil, his face crushed from the blow, and the man with the notebook searched for the pencil that might have fallen and clenched his arm that had been hit and Boaz drove fast down the slope of Dizengoff toward the huts on Nordau. He saw people huddled at the coffee shop where a news announcer's voice was coming, and he went on, he stopped at a breached bridge with a few bushes still burgeoning between its tatters and an iron skeleton was seen peeping out of what had apparently once been a complete structure. He parked the car, turned off the lights, took the kitbag, and went. He walked along the street and could smell the blood of the sea. The smell was calming and the crash of the waves was pleasant and demonstrated devotion and obstinacy.
Excerpted from The Last Jew by Yoram Kaniuk Copyright © 1982 by Yoram Kaniuk. Excerpted by permission.
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