Confessions of a Good Arab by Yoram Kaniuk, translated by Dalya Bilu (George Braziller; $17.50: 215 pages)
One of the greatest acts of violence in Western literature is a kiss--the one bestowed by Christ upon the Grand Inquisitor in "The Brothers Karamazov." It annihilated not a life, but a life's anguished grounds for understanding itself.
Yosef, the narrator and protagonist of Yoram Kaniuk's "The Good Arab," represents a similar violence. He is the son of the most subversive passion possible: love between Arab and Jew. His father is an Israeli Arab, a communist and a moderate--in Israel these things can go together--and an eminent historian. His mother, who is dead when the book begins, was not only Jewish but a national heroine for her part in the battle of the 1948 war.
Kaniuk's fiery and provocative novel, all bristling paradoxes set upon frontiers, is out to fracture the badly set bone that deforms the Middle East. The book consists mainly of the fractures; the idea of a different healing hovers in the air like a feverish dream, more hallucination than vision.
Yosef tells his story from France, where his lifelong search for identity has finally forced him to take refuge. The refuge, like much else in the book, is emblematic; Yosef's insistence on personifying the common humanity of Arabs and Jews is a scandal, alien, and must be expelled.
One of the possibilities that Yosef awaits, in fact, is elimination by either the Israeli or Palestinian intelligence services. He has worked for, or had contact with both. It is--here, as elsewhere, Kaniuk nourishes passion with irony--part of his lifelong effort to be both Jew and Arab.
At one point, a woman tells him he must decide which part of him he will let win. Both have lost, he replies. "I am the most defeated person in my accursed family."
Yosef's voice, vociferous and outraged, reports the quixotic and foredoomed battle with the present. There is, in fact, an element of comedy in it. Brought up largely in the house of his maternal grandfather, Franz Rosenzweig, he tries to be as Jewish as his schoolmates and his girlfriend, Dina. When the police yank him off a bus one night, discover that he is half-Arab and mistreat him for going around with a Jewish girl, he seizes upon his father's identity and changes his last name from Rosenzweig to Sherara.
He storms between two worlds. Dina, a poet, loves his Arab dimension, and although they separate and she marries someone else, she stays in love with him. When he seeks out the company of young Arab intellectuals, he has an affair with Laila, who goes with left-wing Jews by preference, and who breaks with Yosef because his Arab side begins to show too strongly.
Yosef butts his head against every possible wall. Having chosen a paternal surname, he snubs and torments his gentle father, Azouri. He hires an airplane to spray an enormous square of desert red, a piece of conceptual art whose message is that an Arab can make the desert bleed. The authorities stop him, arbitrarily; for the first time, he thinks he knows what it has meant to other Arabs to be dispossessed.
At another point, he fights a battle with the authorities so that they will draft him. His mother was Jewish, he is a Jew, and he has a right to perform his patriotic duty, he tells a military tribunal. Its members try reasoning with him; finally, one of the officers says coldly, and with resounding irony:
"Don't you understand that you're not wanted, Yosef? Why do you insist on pushing in where you're not wanted?"
Yosef is pushy--pushy Arab, pushy Jew. He is also arrogant, self-dramatizing and sometimes insufferable. By himself, he would be a witty, penetrating sketch. Kaniuk has assigned him the strident high notes; but what he has composed is a complex and deeply moving harmony.
The graver and more haunting part of this harmony comes in the strange history of Yosef's family. Franz, a German Jew, was sent as an army officer during World War I to serve as liaison with Turkish forces in Palestine. He meets a beautiful Arab boy and they fall passionately, though chastely, in love.
Back in Germany, Franz marries Kathe, of a wealthy Jewish family, and becomes a successful surgeon. The Arab, now grown up, comes to visit them. He and Kathe fall in love--again, chastely. The young man is Azouri. As a wealthy Arab, he is befriended by the Nazis; and he uses his knowledge and connections to persuade Franz and Kathe to emigrate to Palestine before the persecutions turn bloody.
The connection is broken; after the war, Azouri has become one of an ill-favored minority, while Franz flourishes. And then Azouri meets Franz's daughter, Hava, who is recuperating from her war wounds. They fall in love, marry abroad and, finding themselves isolated and shunned in Israel, move to France, where Yosef is born.
Hava, the Israeli heroine, is contented with exile. It is Azouri, the defeated Arab, who cannot stand it. In the Middle East, defeat can anchor you more strongly to what you have lost than victory to what you have won.