The cyclical nature of history and the repetitive sufferings of the Jews are analyzed with initially forbidding, eventually revelatory complexity in the great Israeli writer’s previously untranslated 1982 novel.
Kaniuk (Commander of the Exodus, 2000, etc.) employs a virtually Faulknerian dreamlike logic in constructing this intricate fiction, which we enter through the agonized viewpoint of an unnamed “Germanwriter” who is importuning relocated Jews for their memories of the elusive title character, Ebenezer Schneerson. We gradually learn that Schneerson, a concentration camp inmate whose talent for woodcarving probably saved his life, thereafter became a willed amnesiac who could recall no details of his own life, but “remembered” the entire range of Jewish culture, its literature and history and science (e.g., Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) and religious doctrine, word for word. Schneerson became the partner (in effect, the property) of fellow Holocaust survivor Samuel Lipker, who organized public demonstrations of the phenomenal memory of this incomparably and inexplicably eloquent “acrobat of words, annals, history.” So complete was Ebenezer’s immersion in the past that he had become effectively stranded in time, a citizen of all the ages, though not of the one he literally inhabited. No sooner does Kaniuk establish this stunning paradox than he replicates it, developing at exhaustive length two conflicting versions of Lipker’s life (as a prosperous American theater impresario, and as a freedom fighter in the new Israel, who takes the name of his ancestor, a 15th-century kabbalist), and the history of Ebenezer’s son Boaz, whose restlessness and rootlessness lead him to serve in the 1948 War of Independence and to the subsequent creation of an “industry” that fabricates memorials to martyred Jews. Thus do sons seek their fathers, shattered families seek reunion and embodiments of the legendary Wandering Jew repeatedly re-enact the old, sorrowing myth of exodus and hardship and return.
Yet a hopeful future does beckon, as Kaniuk ends his rich, demanding, life-affirming masterpiece. Not an easy read, but not to be missed.