I think the first time I ever hear of Yoram Kaniuk, the Israeli writer, is when Theater J, a couple of years ago, did a staged reading of an adaptation of his book 1948, dealing with the memories of soldiers who had fought the Israeli War of Independence, suffered greatly doing so (some not coming back alive), and to some extent wondering if it was worthwhile. Kaniuk himself was in the war as a 17 year old, and was injured. It was a very powerful production.
Then later, I came across and read “Life on Sandpapaer”, Kaniuk’s memoir of the ten years he spent in the United States in the 1950s (see my post titled “The Pleasure of Reading Interesting Memoirs”, December 30, 2015), a fascinating and wonderfully written (if undoubtedly somewhat exaggerated) tale of a would-be artist turned would-be writer, flailing among the musicians and artists of Greenwich Village and Harlem 60 years ago. Kaniuk after he recovered from his war wound, went to Paris to study art, but left fairly quickly to come to New York, where he lived for a decade, finally marrying an American blue-blood. An unlikely pairing, to say the least, that only lasted until his death in 2013.
And then just last week, I stumbled across another of Kaniuk’s books, with the unfortunate title of “The Story of Aunt Shlomzion the Great”. It’s a short novel, it got off to what I thought was a disappointing and slow start, I was ready to abandon it, and then it really took off. It’s only because I had read “Life on Sandpaper” that I realized that this book two, like “Sandpaper” and like “1948” must have been based, however loosely, on his own experience.
For one thing, the strange name Shlomzion (a contraction of what would be in English “Peace of Zion”) was the actual name of an Israelite queen from the first century b.c.e. She was apparently successful and peace loving. Not named in the biblical text, I guess, but referred to in numerous places in the Talmud and in the writings of Josephus. Her name adorns several streets in Israeli cities “Shlomzion Malka” – Queen Shlomzion.
She has nothing to do with the title character of the book, who is simply the aunt of the first person teller of the tale. And she’s not a normal aunt. Seventy sex years old when the tale is being told, very wealthy with her wealth hidden so that no one knows where it is or how much it is, and the most beautiful woman in the world, who has lost none of her beauty or allure as she has aged. She is also controlling, unpleasant, unable to keep up decent relations with anyone, and demanding. She is living out her dying days, although she is still healthy, in a hospital suite, for which she pays a handsome sum every month.
You learn about her, and her intellectual but emasculated husband Nehemiah, who has recently died, and even more so about her imperious father Adonsky, the unremembered builder of most of Tel Aviv, and her meek mother, Miriam, the descendant of a very important Hebron family. Adonsky has made a fortune building, but his financial climb started when he began to acquire and sell grave site, especially on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in the late 19th century. But Adonsky is not a Zionist in the normal sense of the world, although he is quite a seer and realized that a Jewish state would be created at this place and bring with it great demand for houses and grave sites. And to him, the grave sites were the most important – God did not bring the Jews to the promised land to live there in peace; He brought them to die there where they would be closer to His home at the time of the resurrection. And the Hebron family got involved in the mysterious Ben-Amram, the man who became the emissary of Hebron to the world, who traveled the world continually, and who perhaps ran away with the treasure of the Hebron Jewish community with which he had been entrusted.
And you learn of the one son of Shlomzon and Nehemiah – the boy whose name was fought over for 18 months between father and mother, 18 months during which they neither lived together nor spoke with each other, and during which poor Nehemiah never saw his son. But his son showed them! No one could live with a mother like Shlomzion – so he packed himself off to America, changed his name to (of all things) Arty, married (of all things) a Japanese woman (you can imagine how that went over) and who came with his family to Israel to visit his ailing mother. They came, he, his wife and their young twins, for a three week stay. They went back to Chicago after two days.
The lives of Shlomzion and members of her family, past and present, tell quite a tale, and once I got through those first “what the hell is going on?” chapters, kept me captivated until the end.
How much of this is true? Did Kaniuk have an aunt on whom he based Shlomzion the Great? I would bet he did. Who else would have visited this tale teller, the young man who has left Israel to be a starving art student in Paris? And who else would that art student have been but Yoram Kaniuk himself?