Kaniuk, Yoram. “Between Life and Death”, (translated by Barbara Harshav) Restless Books, 2016.
An Autobiographical Novel
I loved reading Yoram Kaniuk in Hebrew when I lived in Israel and while I have read a couple of his books in translation here in the United States, I always felt that something important missed the translator’s eye. That I not true for “Between Life and Death” and the reason I know that is because I checked the Hebrew against the English. I remembered reading “The Birthday Party for Adam Son of a Dog” and it had many problems and never read smoothly like other of Kaniuk’s works that have been translated.
This is Kaniuk’s last book and while it is fiction, it is also autobiographical. As he neared the end of his life in 2003, he spent four months in a coma in a Tel Aviv hospital. He describes that here and he does so in a dreamlike style. As he “hovered between the world of the living and that of the dead”, he recalled the life he led.
This is his attempt to enter the lost consciousness he experienced and to fight for the bit of life that he still had. He is brutally honest and wonderfully lyrical. I remember once being told that it takes a brave person to read Kaniuk as his writing is often in “stream of consciousness” but for me it was a pleasure after having grown up reading William Faulkner who did the same. As he waited for the inevitable end to come, he never stopped fighting. He had been quite prolific having published seventeen novels, a memoir, two collections of essays and five books for children and young adults. He waged war with the Israel’s Ministry of the Interior government because he wanted his Israel Identity card to be changed from Jewish to no religion and actually won this case.
In “Between Life and Death”, he attempts to understand what led him to fight for his life with such tenacity. The writing moves back and forth between memory and illusion, imagination and testimony, as Kaniuk inquires into the place of death in society, the lust for life, and the force of human relationships. He also writes movingly about the Holocaust survivors of his childhood neighborhood, and the battles of the 1948 War of Independence, in which he fought. Even as he lay dying at the age of 74, he announced that the was in the process of being reborn. This did not happen and Kaniuk left us but he did with his lovely book. What makes it so special is that we see that even in those last moments with us, he was able to write with tremendous power and imagination. For him, Israel was a dream that was crumbling and I almost felt that he was not going to die after all— he had too much left to do.
Is it not amazing that inhabiting a broken man from which the soul had already left, that Yoram Kaniuk could write about his near-death experiences with a sense of wit and humor? He, himself, said that next to the Bible’s Book of Job, that this is funniest look at death yet. That humor is in his self-mockery, in his views about his fellow men and in the situations that he wrote about. For him, Israel is a no-man’s land while at the same time is his country. He dared to radical in a worn-torn country and he dared to laugh at what many hold to be serious. As his body deteriorated, he was determined to stay alive but he was unable to hide from death and as it is reported that he said, “death is death, pain is pain and old age is long-lasting”.