Thursday, 10 July 2014

Review: '1948' by Yoram Kaniuk, translated by Anthony Berris

13572672I requested this book from Netgalley, where it has unfortunately already been archived, and had it on my Kindle for some weeks before I finally started reading it. I originally wanted to read it because the Israel-Palestine conflict interests me and is still a major part of Middle-Eastern and World politics. Now I am incredibly happy I did because this novel has opened up my eyes to the conflict in a new way and has made me look differently at the current conflicts in Syria and Lybia. 
Sixty years after fighting in Israel's War of Independence, Yoram Kaniuk tries to remember what exactly did—and did not—happen in his time as a teenage soldier in the Palmach. The result is a touchingly poignant and hauntingly beautiful memoir that the author himself considers a work of fiction, for what is memory but one's own story about the past? Eschewing self-righteousness in favor of self-criticism, Kaniuk's book, winner of the 2010 Sapir Prize for Literature, is the tale of a younger man told by his older, wiser self—the self who realizes that wars are pointless, and that he and his friends, young men from good homes forming an offbeat band of brothers, were senseless to see glory in the prospect of dying young. But it is also a painful, shocking, and tragically relevant homage to the importance of bearing witness to the follies of the past, even—or especially—when they are one's own.
I read this book in two days and didn't stop thinking about it overnight. I have not read a lot of war literature and this is a brutally honest portrayal of the often pointless nature of militarised conflict. Kaniuk describes how he almost fell into the Israeli Independence War and the novel is an incredible example of how sometimes the world moved around you and all you can do is respond. This is largely helped by the structure of the novel. The back and forth switch between different times, both united by Kaniuk's authorial tone. Although he questions himself, the reader follows him on his journey through his own memories without losing faith. With his honesty, Kaniuk ensnares the reader and Anthony Berris translates it perfectly.

There are some beautiful moments in this novel but also some deeply tragic ones. Kaniuk manages to write both with an honesty that is disarming. War is a difficult thing to justify and he never attempts to paint himself or his friends in a heroic light. The absurdity and the strangely comic side of his experiences are allowed to exist next to the truly terrible, whereby he manages to sketch a human portrait of a country and a man at war with itself over its memories. In an interview with the Spectator, Kaniuk stated he wanted to question memory. Situations such as the one Kaniuk found himself in alter not only a person but also how he sees the world and himself. Is he trying to cover for himself or not? Are the things he can't remember really forgotten or pushed so far back they are unreachable, undescribable?

I read this book almost a year ago now and somehow never got to reviewing it. And yet, in those twelve months, not a month went past where I didn't mention it to someone. Now that the tension in Israel is once again increasing, this book has come back to remind me of what happens to the people in such an internal conflict. Books such as this should get more attention than they do and yet it is in their anonymity, almost, that they sneak up on you and surprise you with their insight. 

I give this novel...

5 Universes.

There are books that change your perception of something completely. Although everyone knows that war is bad and changes people, it is not often you get such an honest account as Kaniuk has written. It is a book that sticks with you, that you remember all of a sudden and have to tell someone about. I would recommend this book regardless of what genre you like. If you are interested, this is a book for you.

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