The fourth of Hoffman’s books to be published by New Directions (Bernhard, 1998, etc.) departs from his previous work to head for a gentler place.
Hoffman is Israel’s foremost avant-garde fiction writer, a game-player whose work is reminiscent of other magicians like Walter Abish and the OULIPO gang. His other works have been dark and brooding ruminations on the permutations of recent Jewish history from the Holocaust to the tragedies of the Middle East conflict, but this latest is lighthearted, playful, almost impish. Told in a series of 237 very brief vignettes (seldom longer than a dozen lines), it’s the story of Yehoahim, who is 43 and lives in the port city of Haifa, where he’s recovering from the collapse of his marriage. He seems to do little else but sit in cafes and in his apartment, pondering the inner life of inanimate objects. Eventually, though, he meets and falls in love with Batya, a beautiful woman with a Mongolian baby. His love is reciprocated, and at story’s end the trio constitute a family of sorts. Yehoahim is out of sync with the real world in some deep but not disturbing way; indeed, he seems to be at one with his narrator, giving the novel the feel of something like a postmodern slapstick reworking of Sartre’s Nausea. Hoffman’s narrative derives much of its humor from his surrealist juxtapositions: Batya’s “toes refute the theory of relativity,” Yehoahim’s closet has a name and personality, winter flights are cheap because one can “grab hold of the wing of the plane, as in a picture by Chagall.” Underlying all this giddiness there is a sweet, gentle sensibility that achieves a satisfying completeness in a final epiphany of sacred and profane love. Cole’s translation is amply footnoted and deft at catching Hoffman’s complex network of biblical and literary references.
Charming if somewhat oblique fiction, quirky and unpredictable.