Between Life and Death, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav
(Restless Books, 2016)
Many times in Yoram Kaniuk’s Between Life and Death, the Israeli writer is implored by voices anonymous and familiar to return to the corporeal world. Told over the course of a hazy four months spent slipping in and out of a coma, Kaniuk’s autobiographical novel, his seventeenth and last, reveals a man compelled to revisit phases of his life as an act of both enlightenment and survival.
Like the sleepy fog he describes, Kaniuk’s language veers between different states. His prose in sections is dreamlike, particularly when he recounts visions of his mother, of whom a nurse reminds him “must be over a hundred years old.” He imagines her at his bedside, offering him porridge and milk, and he even pesters her with his morbid fascinations. He writes, “I talk with her about how I’ll look in the grave. How the ants will eat me.” Her reaction is not sorrow or revulsion, but mere annoyance at his histrionics; perhaps as someone who has already passed on, she knows better than to dwell on the details. For Kaniuk, these talks are cathartic and there’s a recuperative power to his visions that extends to her, as if the regrets of the past can be undone.
I didn’t know how to love her, and then she got old and I was bad to her and she was good to me. Now I lie and try to restore Sarah my mother. Suddenly I miss her.
At other moments his prose is defiant – he references bitterly the classification by the state of his wife and two daughters as non-Jewish minorities (each was designated as an “American Christian” by the state’s registry on account of his wife’s background, as religion is passed via matrilineal descent). His underscores his resentment through a momentary direct address to his wife:
such a small state whose name can be written on the map only on the sea, and it…isn’t willing to grant you the rights it grants to everyone who comes from Tunisia or Georgia because he or she is circumcised and you, Miranda, not you.
Kaniuk’s secular politics bubble along the surface, but he never lingers on a digression for too long. If his writing is grim and scathing in flashes, at others his black humor permeates the page, perhaps sharpest when he finds consolation in his cancer because “as the home of a fatal virus, I said to myself, I’m something.” When another patient arrives to share his room, he muses on their mutual risk of infection:
maybe one [virus] was female and the other male and maybe they would fall in love with each other and leave me alone, maybe they’d even name me godfather to their offspring, and suddenly I felt a profound anger.
This instant despair is a symptom of his scattershot awareness: sometimes the situation is dire, other times it is a joke. As he puts it, “Why am I driving myself crazy and what am I seeing before my closed eyes?”
Ambivalence is everywhere in the novel: ambivalence toward the worth of his own existence, toward the state he helped establish as a young man, toward the very visions he encounters, of which he says, “sometimes the hallucinations interested me more than seeing people, even loved ones.” At one point he reflects on the randomness of his condition and concludes: “there’s no meaning, life is like a belch, a kind of process that isn’t serious.” Just as the reader is ready to follow him down this philosophical rabbit hole, he quickly slips away into a vision: “But then I was in another place, I’m driving my poor Peugeot and the car, as usual, broke down.” It is in these details that Kaniuk punctures his cynicism, guiding the reader through short stretches of his life, whether wistful or mournful or tinged by the wonderment of youth. The journey spans large swaths of geography, from his childhood streets of Tel Aviv to his bohemian days in New York to a writers’ conference in Venice. Together these recollections become vessels that lead Kaniuk back to the shores of his consciousness.
Part memoir, part interior monologue, part existential meditation, the story is also a harrowing medical drama. He captures the confusion and unease of the first tests and diagnosis before moving to the dread and agony of the following complications. He describes in visceral detail the growing deformity of his body, from the stomach etched with stitches to the comic realization that his surgeries have moved his bellybutton to the side of his torso. Numbing all of this is the injection of painkillers, which he acknowledges as the source of his hallucinations. Whether the string of nurses, friends and family that tend to him are apparitions or real is probably beside the point—all of them agree he is about to die, until, of course, he finds a way to live.
Not much time is spent on his physical recovery. He recalls the removal of his catheter and feeding tube, and the pitiable days spent licking wet cotton balls before his throat heals enough to allow him a glass of water. When he discovers the months of inactivity have atrophied his muscles, he conveys a mix of shame and frustration, comparing his frailty to a baby’s weakness. His gradual physical improvement is not treated as a triumph, but rather as a series of astringent milestones: the first taste of ice cream tastes like nothing; using a walker takes “backbreaking efforts;” eating independently is a hard-won skill.
The recovery is a spiritual rebirth more than a physical one. Indeed, he seems to find his own humanity through the humanity of others, depicted in his affectionate interaction with his caretaker, Shimon. Shimon is Kaniuk’s opposite—physically imposing, a disinterested reader, endearingly provincial, and utterly alone. Kaniuk describes him as both cipher and sage:
Shimon, who isn’t ashamed to talk about many things, doesn’t understand the term ‘fraud.’ He never lies. He doesn’t betray anyone. He doesn’t speak evil and doesn’t say a bad word about anyone. There’s something hard and deep in him, and he looks dumb but he isn’t. He’s wise in his own way.
Despite their differences, or possibly because of them, they form an unlikely friendship. Kaniuk traces their daily walking route through local streets as they pass neighbors and familiar landmarks before settling at a café. The small steps matter – one senses the comfort derived from the shared routine. Perhaps this is the lesson Kaniuk intended to impart to us in this final testament: turning inward only brought him so far; he needed to look outward to begin to live again.