Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv in 1930. After his experience in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Kaniuk moved to New York where he became a painter in Greenwich Village. Ten years later he returned to Tel Aviv, where he has lived ever since, working as a novelist, painter, and journalist. He has published various fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books over the course of his distinguished career.
In 1948 — for which he was awarded the The Sapir Prize in 2010 — Kaniuk recalls fighting as a teenage soldier in Israel’s War of Independence. Told in the first person the book looks at how memory is a selective process; one that favours myth making and narrative, rather than recalling actual events. Kaniuk’s narrative also asks how culpable the 1948 Arab-Israeli War was in creating the political turmoil that is still present in the state of Israel today.
Last month, NYRB Lit: an ebook series affiliated with The New York Review of Books, published a translation of Kaniuk’s book, which was originally written in Hebrew. Kaniuk spoke to the Spectator about the complexities of memory, why he believes there are no morals in war, and how tragedy eventually always leads to comedy.
This book recalls your memories of the 1948 Arab Israeli War, yet it’s also referred to as a novel. Should the reader see this as a memoir or a work of fiction?
Well it’s not a memoir. I wanted to ask: what is a memory? I was four months fighting in the war and I lost a lot of friends. But how much of it is real or something that I invented later? We don’t remember memories: we make them. I wanted to write a book that was narrated by a 17-year-old man. I’m 82 years old now. I don’t remember who I was in that war.
So how does one decide what is true and what is a lie?
Even though we always invent memory, it means that we don’t lie because the truth is so obscure. History is an invention: it describes the past as we hope we see it. But our memory is like alcohol, always deceiving us. We don’t want to remember everything, we have to create stories instead, and they are based on the same thing. I didn’t write this as a memory for my children, I wrote it as a story. I wanted to write it to understand what happened to me in that war, but not in the same way a historian would. I wrote it for my own conscience and awareness.
On the opening page of the book you meet a man who says ‘everything in life and perhaps, in death too, is based on three fundamentals: vengeance, betrayal and envy.’ Do you agree with this?
I think a lot of this stuff comes from way back. We were hunters for millions of years, and then for 10,000 years we were humans. When you are in a war you become half man/ half animal, because you have to kill and betray.
Then you lie about it in order to protect yourself. It’s conniving, but throughout our lives we all connive. Just yesterday I read an article by a psychologist who studied shell shock, and he argued that people who remember shell shock are also those who received no love from their mother in childhood. I understand now that I didn’t have the love of my mother. I didn’t invent all the stories that I’m writing about, but I’m not sure if they really happened like that either.
What kind of trauma did you suffer as a result of fighting in this war?
When I was very young and I was standing on Mount Zion I saw a man shooting at me. He saw that I was wounded, and lying down: why didn’t he shoot again and kill me? This has been in my mind for many years. I think we all undergo things like that because life is so short and we look at death coming to us.
I killed people. It’s terrible to kill a person. I was like an animal fighting for its survival. But I see myself as killing someone in order to survive. But it’s life. Now I’m so old, and I know that I will die soon, and I think: how did I live with all these nightmares for so many years? But after writing this book, I feel I have come to terms with all these things.
Has the vision of Israel that you fought for in that war matched up to the country you live in today?
We didn’t think about creating a state in Israel at the time, we thought about defence. Later on the state of Israel came into existence. Now I look around me and I see what is going on in Israel and it’s just unbelievable. If I had to fight with these guys now, I’m not even sure if I would. With Bibi [Netanyahu], this stupidity, and all the right wing excitement, it’s terrible. But this is my country, and I’m going to die here.
In one part of the book you say: ‘I went home. I was drenched with the blood of the first dead man I’d seen, a poor Arab, wretched but also valiant. I later killed quite a few Arabs and saw blood in the war, but he was the first man and he was killed for nothing.’ Was there a transition period where killing just becomes normal after a while?
It’s three or four years since I have written the book and I don’t want to remember this. I blocked it out. I don’t want to think about it anymore, I’m sorry. Whatever I have written, that is what happened, or what didn’t happen, but when you see a dead man for the first time in your life, or when you shoot someone, it’s terrible. But after that you get used to it, because they shoot at you to kill you, so you shoot back. We’ve had so many wars in Israel from the 1920s onwards. Someone has died so I can live, that’s the way I have to see it.
Can you ever see a peaceful resolution happening between Israel and Palestine?
This war is going on now for almost 100 years. I don’t see how we can come to a solution. It’s ridiculous that Ramallah is only 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, and yet we cannot go to each other, we keep fighting. It is a tragedy that cannot be resolved. All wars are ridiculous, but then when a bomb goes off 500 metres from my house— which happened in Tel Aviv just a few weeks ago— it doesn’t seem so ridiculous. Why can’t we live in the same country? What is so important about a Jewish State, or an Arab State? I don’t know how to end it. It’s a tragedy, but it’s so tragic that it’s funny.
In one encounter in the book you meet a man who says ‘there are no morals in war’. Do you agree with him?
I think morality changes. Morality is always part of time. The only thing that is essential is ethics: when one thinks they are doing right by themselves. People used to get married because they needed a bigger house, and romantic love was only for outside the family. Today it’s the opposite. I think morality is an invention. I’m a student of Machiavelli, who taught me that the right is not always right, and the wrong is not always wrong. There is no morality, not in war, and not in life. Just look at modern history and you see how much the morals change.
In your memoir Life on Sandpaper you describe living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. How did that period shape you as a writer?
I needed to get out of Israel, so I went to Paris to study art. From there I walked my way onto a ship for New York. I just needed some years to fight over my memories, I was a very sensitive young man, and I was full of fright. So I became part of a movement that contained painters, artists, and all these people who lived in Greenwich Village. It was wonderful because everyone was running away from something.
Many of them were people who had fought in the Second World War. But after a while I felt nowhere. I was neither an American nor an Israeli. I was a Jew but not a Jew, I didn’t know who I was. And then I went to Mexico. It was a crazy time. Later on I started to write my books, and they somehow became my life. I’m very happy writing, it’s the only thing that has sustained me in life.
You also became friends with the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, what kind of man was he?
Well I met Brodsky a long time after that period. It was when I came to New York in the 1970s. Susan Sontag — who really liked my work — introduced me to Joseph, and we became buddies. But he was not easy. He had many problems with Israel, and even with his own Jewishness. But he was a great man, and a fantastic poet. In fact, he lived in 16 Morton Street, in the same apartment I lived in 30 years previously. He paid 2000 dollars per month, when I lived there I paid sixteen per month! I loved him very much and I’m sorry that he died when he did.