YORAM KANIUK, together with Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz is one of an important new generation of Israeli writers, all four of whom may be read at the top of their form in the present Triquarterly Israeli. Kaniuk is the closest of this group to the United States, and in his latest novel, Rockinghorse, he threatens to engendera new national literature: Israeli-American.
The story moves between both worlds: an Israeli painter living in New York in the 1950s leaves his wife and daughter to return to Tel Aviv, his parents and his past. Although some of the best sections are set in America - the chapters in which the hero Aminadav Sussetz roams the dying Yiddish world of New York's Division Street and sees, through Israeli eyes, the hard death of Eastern Europe on the cobbles of America - the joy of Rockinghorse is Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv and its memories haunt Sussetz as he wanders through New York and draw him back, back to a city which few know had a history, a city which created on a sand dune the instant pathos of a Jewish town, its complaints, its laughter, its constant sense of loss, of dying, of being old before its time even as the first buildings were going up.
The narration is a constant Talmudic byway of stories, characters who bear in on the narrator with their tales, his own memories. Slowly we understand the Israeli Sussetz flees from the back to: a hallucinated country where grandparents arrive from the Ukraine and reconstruct a corner of Tarnopol side by side with Arab laborers, Yemenites, Christian German farmers and their milkmaids, the camps of the young Zionists and their songs, Oriental forebearers.
Through the autobiographical maze of the book, half invented, half remembered, we see the shadow of the great Hebrew poet, Bialik, the legendary figure of the mayor, Dizengoff, even the street names move in carriages through Sussetz's childhood. (Sussetz is Hebrew for "rockinghorse," and Kaniuk means "wooden horse" in Ukranian.)
The father of Aminadav Sussetz, with his love of German culture and music, his absorption in the midst of sunny Mediterranean Tel Aviv with the Heine and Goethe of his youth, strikes a note beyong the sadness of his own dying or the loneliness of his marriage. Crippled by a stroke, he speaks German rather than Hebrew in the last months of his life. More than any other character in the novel, he evokes the estrangement of the first settlers from the very air they breathed, and from the land they came to pioneer in, as their dreams returned to Europe. Sussetz's father dies in the corners of the book, retreating, retreating, in a tour de force of imagination. The novel briefly becomes a film script as Sussetz tries to shoot, capture, exploit and understand the death by including it in the movie of his own autobiography. (In the same way, the novel itself is filled with Kaniuk's own personal memories cut into outrageous fantasies, much in the nature of experimental montgage.)
Yet it is not the father but the mother - hectoring, crying, badgering - who is the soul of Rockinghorse . She is everything the mother of Portnoy's Complaint is, but something more, something more to the point: she is aware. She delights in her own craziness which she surely has imparted with her milk to her son. She insists on it; and even the overweening Sussetz quails before the arias of self-pity, mockery and love, as she cries to her son after his return to Israel without wife and children.
"I want to see my granddaughter before I die, Ami."
"Why talk about dying, Mother. You're very alive."
"You think they hate me?"
"They don't know you.
"You haven't told them about me?"
"Only bad things."
"No, actually only nice things."
"What do you mean, actually. Did you lie? Did you want to tell the truth and you told lies."
"No, I told them everything, Mother."
"You told them how I tormented you. What a terrible woman I am. That's what you told them."
When she begins to cry, "I kiss her. She dissolves into me. The scorn that was in me dissolves."
His mother wants an "Immerse funeral . . . a funeral for a lifetime." She is emblematic of Sussetz's Israeli: a country which is a holy failure, a mess, a lifetime funeral. His next-door neighbor meets him across the lawn and begins to mourn the dead of the Holocaust, "How will the smoke be coming to the resurrection of the dead. All the martyrs who became smoke, how will their bones be collected. Will the Messiah be knowing how to collect smoke?"
The stitched-together reality of the country drives Sussetz crazy - everywhere guilt, everywhere enough guilt to drive a clay man crazy. Sussetz wants to die. The whole nation wants to die. Yet, he lives; the nation lives, Crafty laughter!
It is this constant tension in the song of mourning for oneself, for Israeli, for Yiddish, the pathos which bursts suddenly into comedy, which give Rockinghorse its wonderful and rare antique Jewish melody. Sussetz suffers attacks of self-pity but they are succeeded by moments of murderous self-awareness and scornful laughter. Going back and forth on the hobby horse of his craziness, he rides through a very special land. It is not a nation that is evoked in Rockinghorse, but a Holy Land of memories that have spilled out of its settlers' trunks, of ghosts from far-away countries that inhabit the streets.
Sussetz is appalled by the narcissism of the modern, technocratic Israeli, of the generals, of the parochial and self-centered delusions. The "swinging" self-assured Isaeli culture, jerrybuilt on the surge of prosperity, seems tinny and cheap next to this older inheritance of breast-beating and self-questioning. But ironically; at the end of the novel, a slick film which celebrates the chauvinistic state proves a commercial disaster while Sussetz's eccentric pastiche of autobiography and fantasy, like Kaniuk's novel, rocks to success.
What makes Yoram Kaniuk unique among the Israeli writers is his love and generosity. He reaches across to the Yiddish dust and contemporary dreck of America, the ashes of the Holocaust, the abandoned garden of the Eastern European shtetl and turns these memories in the soil of the Jewish homeland. CAPTION: Picture, photo of Yoram Kaniuk & Jill Krementz; Illustration, no caption, By [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]