Yoram Kaniuk Samuel I. Bellman - Essay

Samuel I. Bellman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yoram Kaniuk is a youngish Israeli novelist of enormous talent, both as an artificer of plot and as a virtuoso of language. He is an existentialist who writes somewhat in the manner of Camus, although his work shows a sophisticated awareness of many other writers and their special literary modes. On the basis of his first novel, The Acrophile … and to a lesser extent the new one, Himmo, one might argue that Kaniuk could some day—if he stays on the job—join the ranks of important world authors.

The Acrophile was a fantastically good story with all the verve, inventiveness, and assured mastery of idiom one expects from such writers as Amado, Borges, Queneau, Böll, and perhaps Nabokov. Even in translation the book showed literary craftsmanship on every page.

Kaniuk's existentialism, which in The Acrophile was of a wild, zany, carnival-of-the-emotions sort, is in Himmo a somber conscience-twisting that demands impossible action under the most adverse conditions. And, as with the earlier novel, the English-speaking reader can't help wondering whether there are subliminal tones in the original Hebrew that the best translation could never pick up.

Himmo might have been subtitled "The Nurse's Dilemma." During the Arab siege of Jerusalem in the winter of 1948 an Israeli girl named Hamotal [worked as a nurse in a hospital]…. [Of her patients, the] most seriously hurt is Himmo Farrah, not yet nineteen, who was once the acknowledged "king of Jerusalem," at least with the ladies. Now blind and maimed, he calls desperately for someone to shoot him. Only his mouth has been left unmarred, and it is beautiful to Hamotal….

Hamotal dedicates herself exclusively to Himmo and seldom leaves his side…. But Himmo's real problem is beyond the reach of Hamotal's tender loving care. He wants to die….

The painful resolution, which is not very satisfactory, is probably intended to leave the reader with a psychological puzzle he can keep turning over in his mind.

Samuel I. Bellman, "Macabre Union," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 7, February 15, 1969, p. 35.