Mad and sane in Israel

Two major novels brilliantly and vividly convey the contrasting, pulsating elements of life in the Jewish state


By David Herman, January 22, 2009
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Amir Gutfreund could be the next great Israeli novelist.

Amir Gutfreund could be the next great Israeli novelist.

Adam Resurrected

By Yoram Kaniuk (Trans: Seymore Simckes)
Atlantic, £7.99

The World A Moment Later

By Amir Gutfreund (Trans: Jessica Cohen)
Toby Press, £14.99

These are both big, ambitious novels about Israel, each with a rich cast of fascinating, eccentric characters. But they and their writers are very different. Kaniuk, almost 80, is a distinguished author of nearly 20 novels. Gutfreund, still in his 40s, is just starting out. More importantly, the two novels reflect different times and attitudes to writing.

Adam Resurrected was an early novel, first published in 1968, and perhaps his most successful, translated into 14 languages. It has been republished now to coincide with a film adaptation, with a starry cast including Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Derek Jacobi. And one of the great what-if questions of Israeli fiction is: what if Hollywood had filmed the novel when it first came out?

The central character is Adam Stein. Once Europe’s greatest clown, he entertained his fellow-Jews, including his wife and elder daughter, as they entered the gas chambers.

He comes to Israel in the 1950s in search of his one surviving child. After his arrival, he breaks down. Now, he is in an Israeli mental clinic. The novel moves back and forward in time, telling Stein’s story, and those of his fellow inmates, some as distressing as his.

In many ways, Adam Resurrected is a product of its time. One of a cluster of 1960s Holocaust-survivor novels, it has interesting similarities with The Pawnbroker and Mr Sammler’s Planet. It is also full of the ’60s fascination with madness, rebellion and anti-psychiatry. Stein would not be out of place in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the MASH. It is a mad world where maybe the mad are the most sane.

This, and the reflections on Stein’s guilt for what he did in the camps, are far from post-Six Day War euphoria. This is a dark, complex — and, I would have thought, unfilmable — novel.

Gutfreund’s book is just as full of tragic stories but is a very different kind of read. A pleasure from beginning to end, it tells the story of pre-war Palestine and the new state of Israel, from the 1920s to the late 1970s, through the interweaving experiences of a number of extraordinary characters. All the highlights of Israel’s history are there, but seen from an unusual angle. This is what Gutfreund calls “A Shadow History of Israel”.

This story, too, moves back and forth. The first four chapters are set in 1920, 1948, 1924 and 1964, so we keep meeting the same characters, who sometimes have moved forward a few years, or even died, and then we meet then again still alive a few years earlier. Some chapters resemble short stories, containing a character’s life history.

The World a Moment Later bursts with life and teems with detail. Gutfreund has created some tremendous, memorable characters, above all, at the book’s centre, the mysterious Chaim Abramowitz, who deals with everyone, and no one dares cross.

All of them debate the great issues of the new Israel. This is a Jewel in the Crown of mid-20th century Israel. It is storytelling of the highest quality and Gutfreund is clearly a major writer to look out for, perhaps the next great Israeli novelist.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011