The Last Jew
A Novelby Yoram Kaniuk
“Of the novelists I have discovered in translation . . . the three for whom I have the greatest admiration are Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Yoram Kaniuk.” —Susan Sontag
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 Garciá Márquez’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.
“A masterful novel. . . . delicious . . . The Last Jew is a true work of art, free from emotional manipulations . . . Comprehensive . . . 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, The Washington Post
“Not long ago I read The Last Jew by Israeli writer Yoram Kaniuk and was blown away. If the prophets of the Old Testament had read Joyce, Kafka, Márquez, Conrad and Gershom Scholem, listened to American jazz, seen Broadway musicals and heard Lenny Bruce, they might have sounded something like Kaniuk.” —Nicole Krauss, Time magazine’s “The Must-reads of Summer ’10”
“Wildly accomplished . . . Kaniuk writes like a European master of an earlier age. An experimentalist fond of the southerly wind of the long and longing sentence, he has rightly been compared with Borges and Márquez as much as with James Joyce . . . Kaniuk has written a Bible.” —Joshua Cohen, The Forward
“A startling addition to the Holocaust fiction canon. [Kaniuk] goes way outside the norm, taking punches at the ‘memorial industry,’ Zionism and other sacred cows in this dense, reality-shifting novel.” —The San Diego-Union Tribune
“The cyclical nature of history and the repetitive sufferings of the Jews are analyzed with initially forbidding, eventually revelatory complexity in the great Israeli writer’s . . . novel. Kaniuk employs a virtually Faulknerian dreamlike logic in constructing this intricate fiction. . . . Stunning . . . [A] rich, demanding, life-affirming masterpiece. . . . Not to be missed.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An essential acquisition . . . The Last Jew makes heavy demands on its readers, compelling them—as does Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Joyce’s Ulysses—to find a context and meaning for the fractured perceptions and convoluted lives of the characters that confront them. But the readers’ struggle for meaning mirrors that of the characters as they wander personal labyrinths, desperately trying to recover and make sense of their dark individual and collective memories . . . Neither critical theory nor archetypal psychology will soon exhaust this deep literary well.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Perhaps the greatest writer to fable himself out of Israel and onto the international scene since the tragic early death of the genius Yaakov Shabtai . . . The Last Jew is his masterpiece, a book for the ages.” —Jewish Book World
“A fascinating page-turner, epic in nature, [The Last Jew] explores Jewish identity in kaleidoscopic form . . . A brilliant tour de force.” —Library Journal
“A layered, sweeping panorama of 20th Century Jewish life and identity.” —Publishers Weekly
“Of the novelists I have discovered in translation . . . the three for whom I have the greatest admiration are Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Yoram Kaniuk.” —Susan Sontag
“Whether it is due to the originality of his broken style, the sensitivity of his characters, or his implacable lucidity, Kaniuk must be considered one of the great writers of our time.” —Le Monde
Selected as a 2006 Washington Post Book World Most Favorable Reviews title
Selected by Nicole Krauss as a Time magazine “The Must-reads of Summer ’10”
The 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 only nodded, 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 faces 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 man 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 eaten 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 eaten 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, he 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 ear 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.
When he lay on a cot in a tent on the seashore, in the small camp for soldiers who returned and didn’t know where, or why they stayed there, he thought he didn’t remember who Minna was and in fact he did remember, but it wasn’t important to him. And then he realized that he was protecting somebody.
In the morning, he passed by a small hotel with a sign on its wall saying: “For Soldiers, Discount and Free Wash.” He didn’t know what was free and what was discounted and he went in. The clerk was snoozing and upstairs in the rooms, people were groaning. Maybe the clerk recorded their made-up names in his notebook. Boaz asked for what was free and found himself in a bathroom whose walls were filthy and whose mirrors were broken. He asked the man for toothpaste; the clerk was too tired to refuse. Boaz spread toothpaste on a fountain pen he took out of the kitbag and brushed his teeth. Then he wet his face and hair and combed his hair back with his fingers, and the broken mirror didn’t give him any idea of how he looked. When he came out, the clerk said something about the war and hope and Boaz asked him if he was interested in buying gold teeth of Arabs. The clerk felt the toothpaste that Boaz returned to him and said: Enough already, everybody’s got those jokes. Boaz didn’t correct him, but went out, pounded his fist, and saw damp crumbling plaster, his hand was white from the blow and he walked along Hayarkon Street where the sea was seen flickering between the houses. A woman was hanging laundry out to dry and he wanted the sun to burn her men’s clothes. When he came to the office, he saw a sign: “Office to Direct Soldiers Who Were Cut Off from Their Units.” He climbed the stinking stairs and saw soldiers standing in a line. One of them said, There’s a Romanian girl on Third Street, twenty cents a fuck. Boaz waited quietly and chewed imaginary gum. The soldiers wanted gum and he showed them a mouth with no gum. In the office sat a well-groomed officer wearing a handsome uniform, and his eyes were veiled in a panic that became beautiful in a properly functioning smile. Boaz appreciated that national authority. He answered the officer’s questions calmly, pulled out the papers, and showed them to the officer. The officer said to him: Oh, you were there too, you deserve more, where’s the weapon, they spoke a few minutes and a female soldier came in looking furious and wrote something on a small thin pink paper form. After he signed, he wanted to understand how far the female soldier’s gigantic breasts reached, but she turned her back to him and said: Everybody, everybody, and he understood her, maybe in his heart he pitied her, with breasts like those to meet those dark schemes. When he went outside, he remembered dully that he had to go to the settlement, to Grandmother, but he knew the time hadn’t yet come, he’d been moving around for a month now, he’d wait another few days. And he didn’t know where he had been moving around for a month before he came here, the battles had ended before, he didn’t remember what was the last battle, but he did remember saying to somebody, it’s good that it’s over but he didn’t know if he really meant that. Different ants walked in a row toward a hole they had dug and in a nub sat a tree in a big pot. Somebody was watering the tree with a long hose and standing under the awning of a stationery store. From there you could see a big yard behind a house that might once have been a fashionable café. In the yard were pieces of chairs and posts with broken lanterns hanging on them. Boaz loaded the kitbag on his back, spread out his hands, bent down to balance the weight, as if he were walking on a tightrope, and walked toward the courtyard, where cats striped like tame tigers were yowling. He sat down in a broken chair in the courtyard and tried again to think. The ants and the beetles were a sign that his friends really did die and that he really did come back but if he could, he would have asked the officer more questions now, but since it was a waste of effort to go back up, he didn’t. He fingered the money they had given him and didn’t recognize the money. The money was written with Hebrew letters. That money already has a state, he said aloud and the cat jumped with trained wildness toward a broken lantern and planted its claws in it. So he went to the café not far from there and ordered coffee, cake, and a glass of soda. When he wanted to pay, he gave the waiter all the money and the waiter looked at him in shock, counted the necessary coins, and said, returning most of the money to him, You’re funny today sir; but he said finny.
Boaz thought that as a funny, or finny, person, he had to see the car he had taken the day before but he knew that was only an excuse to return to some place, for no good reason, and the car surely wasn’t there. He wanted to know where he should go. When he came, he saw the car parked where he had left it. The man from the grocery store who came outside to bring in the margarine thrown on the sidewalk by the driver of the worn-out and squeaky pickup truck said, You looking for an apartment here? There’s one upstairs, rent control. Boaz said, That car is stolen! The man pondered a bit and bent over to pick up the margarine. Boaz picked up the case of margarine for him and dragged it inside. The man gave Boaz an Eskimo Pie and he nibbled at it. Boaz said, Cars should live in their own houses. The shopkeeper muttered something and said there were people here at night, but they left. And Boaz said they come and go all the time. Over the counter hung an announcement about food rationing and food coupons and Boaz read it carefully; the shopkeeper said, It’ll be hot today. When he came out of the shop, he saw the driver in the distance, he leaped into the yard and climbed the tree. He looked and saw them checking the car and a person who looked like a plainclothes cop searched for fingerprints on the handle. That made him laugh, in the tree, and he slowly came down and started walking. They didn’t even see him. He came to the tents, put down the kitbag, put on a clean but wrinkled shirt, and went out. After he sat for hours and looked at the sea, he went to Café Pilz. The music burst out and the waves of the sea looked silvery. He drank two spitfires and Menashke played songs on the accordion. Then they played a rumba and everybody danced. A girl Boaz later discovered in his arms tried to defend herself against the shock on his face. But she accepted Boaz’s kiss with empty lips cut off from himself. She was offended and tried to look into his eyes but in the middle of the second kiss, with two spitfires in his belly and his head spinning, he left her slack-jawed and went toward London Square. She yelled something that was drowned in the noise of the sea. He expected her to be the daughter of the driver of the car and would sue him. So he groped in the empty pocket where he used to keep the gold teeth. Then he sat on a rock and looked at a bench not far from him. The bench was surely more comfortable to sit on because in the morning, when he went to the office, he saw that it was repainted. The sea spread out before him. The girl was still yelling, or the yelling was before and only the echo was heard now, the sea was locked because of the dark. The moon shed a little light but it was thin and curved and a car that might have broken down, parked with its lights on and illuminated the wrong section of the sea. Boaz leaned over the rock and behind it were white houses gleaming in the curved light, with eyes wide open he saw nonexistent eagles darting, swooping and a bright path, and a man yelling, they died, got to save the black. Boaz sat there terrified, shrouded in dread from some unknown source, thought about the baby that could have been born if the woman who got an indifferent kiss near Café Pilz was yelling something. Maybe Boaz was a bastard who fell on his head, he thought; maybe that’s Minna, did I know her once, or not, Minna, and what does he have to do with all those Minnas, he told the baby kicking inside him: Wait a while, I’ll give birth to you, pretty one, with two mothers, three fathers, and two grandfathers. Then he went down to the boardwalk and bumped into wires not reached by the car’s headlights. Maybe they were laid here recently when the war was close to Tel Aviv, which always expected wars on her border.