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Life on Sandpaper, by Yoram Kaniuk, translated by Anthony Berris. Champaign, IL, and London, UK: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011. 417 pp. $15.95.
“There had been a war and I was wounded,” is how Yoram Kaniuk opens his novel that follows his Palmach soldier protagonist’s search for identity, career, and the meaning of life. In the course of this bildungsroman, Kaniuk takes his protagonist through an exploration of the self in a series of encounters with Americans and Europeans. It is in America in particular where he learns that even in the Golden Land its citizens cannot always realize their dreams. The choice of America is meaningful, more than merely an occasion to fictionalize a chapter in his own experiences as an Israeli in America of the 1950s. Following the Holocaust America has become the alternative to Israel as a haven, and it is this that the author tacitly weighs as the story-behind-the-story in this long and multi-faceted work. The novel, which the author himself proclaims at the opening as “not entirely incorrect to call . . . a work of fiction,” is a sophisticated molding of his experiences following Israel’s War of Independence when he spent the 1950s in America, until his return to his home, which, significantly, is also the novel’s last word.
This novel is, in many ways, a literal and a spiritual journey of self-discovery. Indeed, for readers of Kaniuk’s previous writings, Life on Sandpaper is another encounter with the same exploits his heroes have experienced in previous novels—The Acrophile (Ha-Yored le-ma’alah), Rockinghorse (Susetz)—as well as a number of short stories, among which “Hamesibah shel Charlie Parker” (“Charlie Parker’s Party”), “Leni Tristano ha’iver” (The Blind Lenny Tristano), and “Timber” are most characteristic of his America-centered tales. And while his writing spans numerous geographical and thematic spheres, Kaniuk’s fiction may be viewed as a single whole, telling and retelling events from several vantage points. It is through the prism of these works that this novel is read most productively.
Kaniuk is among those writers popularly labeled the Palmach Generation, or “Dor ba’aretz” (“the generation in the land”) as termed by Gershon Shaked, a reference to those who were of (or near) military age in 1948 and who experienced the war directly (in most cases) as soldiers. They represent, and have internalized, this event in their art and as a significant component of their protagonists’ outlook in their transition into citizens of the new state. Other notable members of this group are Moshe Shamir, S. Yizhar, B. Tammuz, and Y. Amichai. For that reason, an alternate way of reading Kaniuk’s work is by juxtaposing it with the work of his fellow writers of the same generation. Unlike most, though, Kaniuk is labeled a modernist by virtue of his analogical technique, one that resembles free-association of plot and character, with a loose plot whose causal links are not always comprehensible.
Unlike the characters of most of his fellow writers, Kaniuk’s chief protagonist in this work as in others is educated by exposure to the world beyond Israel, sometimes against the backdrop of America. As he witnesses the grinding harshness of life’s experiences in the Land of the Free, as the title indicates, the protagonist, who had thought of himself as an omnipotent and heroic Palmachnik, becomes able to see himself more realistically, a process that facilitates his reintegration as a “normal” citizen in the new land where he can now lead a normal, less-than-heroic existence in Israel.
After being wounded, a theme central in a number of works, particularly the short piece, “Eytim” (Vultures) and the novel Himmo Melekh Yerushalayim (Himmo King of Jerusalem), Kaniuk’s protagonist leaves the country in quest of healing (literal and metaphoric) on a slow boat headed west. His impressions of post-war Naples and Paris are of devastated lands that do not offer any resolution to his problem, except in the matter of women, who gravitate to his deep sadness. Going further, he finds his macho Israeli identity serves him well in an encounter he has with a German on board his New-World-bound ship, where his assertiveness, in contrast with the meekness of his adversary, sets the tone he is to follow for much of his disappointing sojourn in America.
In America he survives by trickery and selling himself as the heroic exotic Israeli, coming from the land of desert and camels to make his new conquests among New York women. Yet he is not the sole marketer in images. In New York he meets and befriends a host of the famous, whose names he drops unabashedly as his friends. Among them are the bohemian artists of Harlem, heirs to the recently-terminated Harlem Renaissance who are portrayed as objects of his adoration but also as living a life of pretense, creating an aristocratic class of tragic figures who, in Anthony Berris’ faithful, flowing and elegant translation,
loved monarchy, pomp, dressing elegantly: Billie [Holiday] was Lady Day, Lester Young was Prez, Ellington was Duke, Basie was Count, and Nat Cole was King. They greeted each other the way they’d seen in movies about English royalty. (p. 34)
In addition, Kaniuk’s protagonist seems to know everyone worth knowing from coast to coast and North to South. It is as if without him, America’s celebrities would often be failures. He names many, among them James Agee, Marlon Brando, Bill Dana (a.k.a. Jose Jimenez), Robert De Niro (Sr. and Jr.), JFK, Stanley Kubrick, Sal Mineo, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Billy Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and several dozen more.
America in the Fifties is preoccupied with gangsters and the Red Scare and fear of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, mixed in with a dose of Socialists, Communists, and other revolutionaries bent on tikkun olam, the mending of the world. Our protagonist learns from Mike Hammer of the culture of cold-blooded killing that the execution of Reds is permissible. Yet it is Pat, one of his girlfriends, who defends him in Alabama from rednecks, telling him to forget his “Palmak” here (p. 53), an account reminiscent of episodes in Kaniuk’s prior works, as if to show how the past persists in his daily affairs.
America’s drug culture, already a prominent part of life, is ever-present. It has a devastating impact on its artists, as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker exemplify, and on the lives of more ordinary people who turn to prostitution; it enslaves all who come in contact with it.
In imitation of other expatriate Israelis in America, our protagonist goes through a lengthy, tortuous series of get-rich schemes that span the North American continent, and numerous trysts that lead to a recognition of his true love. Kaniuk’s hero then calls it quits, packs his belongings, takes his (second) wife and returns to Israel, his remaining refuge from a world gone mad, and settles in his home.
The narrative of the numerous episodes is amusing, sad, and controversial in its message. Kaniuk’s denigration of Israelis in the New World can only point to one refuge for them, to which few return. But this is the author’s wry, dark, and unhappy observation of his fellow countrymen. For lovers of Kaniuk, and for students of American culture as perceived through the eyes of others, this is a most revealing novel of the Palmach generation’s stock-taking and examination of the world as it is.