Yoram Kaniuk is one of Israel’s most acclaimed writers, but only a few of his 32 books have been translated into English. His latest book, “1948,” is published as part of the New York Review of Books Lit series “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.” In doing so, NYRB Lit has brought one of the most insightful and beautifully written war memoirs of recent years into the English-speaking world.
“1948” recounts Kaniuk’s experience in the Palmach, a ragtag underground Jewish army that became an essential group in Israel’s war for independence. His storytelling, translated by Anthony Berris, is powerful, deep and unexpected. The elapsed time between the events of the war and his writing of the memoir have not diminished Kaniuk’s story, but have made him a rare and valuable thinker.
Kaniuk is now 82, and wrote this book with 64 years of retrospect (he lied about his age and was 17 when he joined the army). Like “The Things They Carried,” the classic Vietnam War memoir by Tim O’Brien, “1948” is fictionalized, time having flawed Kaniuk’s memory.
“I’m not sure what I actually remember since I do not rely on memory, it is sly and does not possess a one and only truth … A lie that comes from seeking truth can be more genuine than truth itself,” he writes. “You think, and a moment later you remember only what you want to.”
At many points, Kaniuk tells us that a friend from the war, when recounting a battle or other experience, remembered certain details differently than he does.
But just because the book may not capture the entire reality of events doesn’t mean it doesn’t capture the truth. Kaniuk’s writing is honest and thoughtful. Like in other great war memoirs, such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Jarhead,” Kaniuk depicts confrontations with mortality — from the death of friends to losing a leg — with profound, raw terror. Also like those books, as well as Tim O’Brien’s, he recognizes the limitations of language in the discussion of war in its overwhelming terror. Kaniuk understands the existential crisis of the soldier, a simple figure in a large and complex war willed into existence by politically powerful men who rarely fight.
While Kaniuk often considers ideas behind the founding of a Jewish state in the Middle East, his opinions are refreshingly original, even pessimistic.
“[Smart] we were not,” he writes. “Smart people don’t go off to die by choice when they’re seventeen, eighteen, or even twenty years old. Smart people prefer actual countries over dreamed ones. Smart people don’t try to establish new countries in [heat] waves in a country full of native Arabs, and surrounded by Arab countries that view them as malevolent foreigners.”
He calls it “crazy” to “fight a suicidal war for someone you don’t know and for something about which you haven’t the faintest idea.” Yet although he describes Israel as a state established “for the dead who would not live in it,” Kaniuk lives in Israel and writes in Hebrew. His conflicted view of Israel’s foundation fuels much of the energy and pain of the novel. According to him, the idea was to found a state that would protect refugees of the Holocaust, but upon the state’s foundation the idea became quite different. A regular nonfiction book might overuse dates and names, but this memoir’s discussion of ideas of nationality makes the book more accessible to people less familiar with Israeli history or Middle Eastern politics.
Besides, Kaniuk believes the war was worthwhile in the wake of the Holocaust. Describing the state of Israel after his service, he acknowledged that although the 1948 war was terrible for him, the survivors of the Holocaust were “a thousand times stronger” than any Israeli, and that what happened in Israel was “a children’s story” compared to what happened in Europe.
One of the great pleasures of reading the book is Kaniuk’s muscular and versatile narrative voice. He blends narrative voices and spouts unexpected — often funny — descriptions of places and people. He describes in passing his uncle, who owned a photography shop in Tel Aviv, and who “for twenty years had been photographing idiots who wanted to look handsome against a backdrop of paper jungles he’d hang behind them, but who for his soul had for twenty years photographed the sunsets on the same beach and at the same hour and not one of those photographs was preserved.” Kaniuk often talks about which events were too painful to write about, which is why he put off writing the book for years. The result, though, is a style expertly honed over decades.