Remembering anti-establishment writer Yoram Kaniuk

I met Yoram Kaniuk, who died on Saturday at the age of 83, a couple of years ago.

June 9, 2013 20:55
3 minute read.
Author Yoram Kaniuk.

Yoram Kaniuk 311. (photo credit: Courtesy )


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I met Yoram Kaniuk, who died on Saturday at the age of 83, a couple of years ago. I went to his cozy, ground-floor Tel Aviv apartment to talk to him about his award-winning book, 1948, which was based on his recollections of his experiences during the War of Independence.

Kaniuk was only 17 when he volunteered for the Palmach and the events he participated in, and witnessed, during those brutal hostilities were to color his approach to life, and his art, for the next six-and-a-half decades.

Listening to the octogenarian talk avidly about his writing and painting, and about some of his escapades in his carefree younger days one got the impression Kaniuk was a definitive straight talkercum- writer-cum painter. What you got out of him in person was just the same as was what you read in the pages of his many books, and what you saw in his paintings.

You get the clear, straight-shooter picture from Kaniuk’s approach to his 2003 autobiographical tome, I Did It My Way, in which he relates events – actual or refashioned by memory warps – which he underwent during his decade-long sojourn in New York, from 1950 to 1960. According to the book he had quite a time of it Stateside, and rubbed shoulders, and drinking elbows, with some of the iconic figures of the emerging modern jazz scene of the time.

“I have been told that I write in an unacceptable literary style,” Kaniuk told me. “But I write the way I speak. I couldn’t write so I felt helpless, and my style of writing came out of this helplessness.” The music Kaniuk heard in New York in the 1950s also impacted on his entire literary oeuvre. “Yes, I think you could say my writing is like bebop, you know, like improvisation, like jazz,” he mused.

I first came across Kaniuk’s literary output around 30 years ago when, rummaging through the piles of dusty books in the Pollak secondhand bookstore on Tel Aviv’s King George St. I happened upon a slightly dog-eared copy of Kaniuk’s Himmo King of Jerusalem, which was originally published in 1966. It is a typical offbeat Kaniuk offering based in besieged Jerusalem of 1948. There is an improbable love story in there, and it is populated with all kinds of weird and wonderful characters.

Jerusalem always occupied a special place in Kaniuk’s affections – he fought in and around the capital during the War of Independence – and his empathetic treatment of the characters and his darkly nuanced humor captivated me, and helped me improve my Hebrew in the process.

Kaniuk was a canine lover and that fueled his 1988 book Wasserman, about a weatherbeaten dog which eventually finds a good home. Kaniuk’s portrayal of the animal and some of the humans reveals the writer’s tender side, and there is the odd avant garde-oriented vignette in there too.

Kaniuk’s father was the first director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and also served under Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff, although Yoram did not enjoy a warm relationship with him. The Holocaust also left its indelible imprint on the young Kaniuk, who describes the survivors as ghostly figures traipsing the streets of Tel Aviv. After the War of Independence Kaniuk served on ships which brought Holocaust survivors to the new State of Israel, and it was during these voyages that he received firsthand accounts of the horrors he had been fortunate enough to have been spared in pre-state Palestine.

In fact, 1948 and Kaniuk’s last book, An Old Man, which came out late last year, may never have seen the light of day had the author not survived a tricky operation for cancer in 2005, which he somehow came through. “I realized I could have died, and that it was time to write the book [1948],” he told me. One can only be grateful that Kaniuk got the time to do that.

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