Literary No-man's Land

In his new book, Haim Be'er is both author and protagonist. This double role is but feature of the work's persistent blur between representation and reproduction, fiction and reality.

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Hannan Hever

"Lifney hamakom" ("Upon a Certain Place") by Haim Be'er, Am Oved, 298 pages, NIS 98

The question at the center of Haim Be'er's book "Lifney hamakom" ("Upon a Certain Place") concerns the moral meaning of the act of literary writing and its circumstances. In the final chapters of this fascinating and wise book, Be'er, the narrator who reconstructs his fictional autobiography, describes the moral significance of writing a book in Germany, at Wannsee, during the time of the Second Lebanon War. "The wretchedness, impotence and helplessness of the country's leaders, ministers and advisors and, in addition to that, the feeling that the genies imprisoned in the dark cellars of 'Words Without a Land' are suddenly breaking free of their restraints, not only filled me with a deep sense of anxiety and helplessness but also made the writing, into which I plunged myself for 16 hours each day, and the continued tranquil stay at the writers' villa in Wannsee, immoral."

Through a series of questions about the book's validity and quality, and especially by leaving open the critical questions that are liable to be asked about it - because no "human" Palestinians or Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), nor many women, for that matter, appear in it - Be'er confronts the core of the moral question inherent in his choice: "I do not find a satisfying answer to the question of why I did not get up, pack my few things and the piles of papers and go back to Israel to be with my family, my friends and my countrymen during those difficult hours."

Here, however, it is necessary to be precise. On the one hand, the book examines the moral question with the utmost seriousness, while on the other hand it does not inflate the writer into a moral, self-righteous being. In so doing, Be'er is criticizing his own style in his book "Feathers," in which, he says, he turned the character of Mordecai Leder into a grotesque utopian, whereas now he intends to make his protagonist a truly tragic hero. This is why Be'er's soul-searching almost always culminates in self-irony: He stands before his readers as he tortures himself time and again without being tempted even for a single moment to nurture a noble, mythical character of the writer. And this is true even when he reports, with a certain amount of irony, the accusations flung at him for his personal responsibility as an Israeli for the events of the Nakba ("the catastrophe," the term used by Palestinians to describe the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948) and the occupation.

The main literary trick Be'er employs in "Upon a Certain Place" is that this is a book about writing this very book. He first made use of this trick, he says, because he despaired of writing the book he had planned, "Words Without a Land." The technique is quite successful: Almost the whole book deals with questions of writing a book, the real-life equivalents of the characters in it, as well as the passion for books, libraries and publishing. Yet "Upon a Certain Place" also deals with the opposite, the transformation of books into people: "This hybrid with its many contradictions of vulnerability and strength, of fragility and durability, of temporariness and permanence, is what in my opinion has afforded the book its so very human character, so much so that I have decided to make it the protagonist of the hidden book I am trying to write."

This is the problematic and fragile way by means of which Be'er deals with the very possibility of writing a book that relates to reality in ways that are distinct and ostensibly limited to representations of reality. His attempt to deal with difficult topics, above all the Holocaust, through the world of books and libraries is both a promising but also a very dangerous idea: promising, because the bibliophilic activity creates the suitable distance that prevents the book from declining into kitsch and death; and dangerous, because there is nothing simpler than transforming the book itself, and in its wake also the Holocaust, into a fetish for the bibliophile Haim Be'er.

The possibility of fetishization arises from the ironic comments of the writer's wife, who scolds him for even having considered the possibility of selling his library. The fetishization of the Holocaust emerges, for example, in one of Be'er's conversations with Solomon Rappoport, a legendary bookseller, on the relations between Katrina and the wealthy Rafael Sussman: "'You,' Rappoport turned to me after a brief pause, 'who ever since "The Pure Element of Time" have been earning a respectable living from the eternal conflict between fathers and sons, most probably now think that Rafael Sussman's belated rebellion against everything his father held sacred is a new, post-Hitlerite incarnation of parricide.'"

This double fetishization both transforms reality into a book and passes the book off as an alternative to reality, resulting in the loss of the critical, moral dimension. Be'er's attempt to reveal this fetishization while keeping a safe distance from the events themselves allows him to set forth the genealogy of "the book during the period of the Holocaust," i.e. to follow the incarnations of books during the Holocaust both through tracing the incarnations of a specific book, the plot of which he relates, and through the diversion to these books in an attempt to speak about the horror of the Holocaust. In this book the novel becomes a vessel for containing the horror; in effect, it serves as a metonymy of the Holocaust. The book is the mediator with reality, or is even woven into reality, which itself is the existence of another book - as Be'er explains at the outset of the novel:

"The beginning of the deeds I intend to recount in this book clasps the end of another book, which I am in the process of writing." The motto of the book, captured by its title, also establishes the theological dimension of the otherworldliness of the place (the place itself and God, who is called "hamakom" - Hebrew for "place"), where, and about whom, the book is written. It does so by quoting the biblical verse from Jacob's dream that relates to the place where he laid his head on one of the stones, Genesis 28:17. However, Be'er does so by means of the mediation of a book ("Kitzur Shulhan Arukh," from which the motto is taken). To this is added the cover, which shows a photograph of "The Library," a memorial site created by Micha Ullman at Berlin's Opernplatz, where the Nazis burned the prohibited books in 1933; this sculpture serves "the author as a source of inspiration during the writing of 'Upon a Certain Place,'" as is noted on the cover.

Burnt scraps

Although Be'er juggles with the stories of his books, he also keeps a measured and uncompromising ironic distance from them. This allows him to set in motion criteria of morality with regard to every element in the world of temptations; it allows him to sink into a book and subordinate reality to aesthetics. The story of the five people who meet in Berlin to consult on the annual discussions at the Institute for Advanced Studies, established in memory of Miriam, who committed suicide and was the daughter of the wealthy Rafael Sussman who has made his money in dubious ways, is, ostensibly, the story of a chase after books. Be'er's rendering of this meeting is joined by the story about the handing out of rare volumes (for example, "The Blue Piano," of Elsa Lasker-Schueler's poems), another story about the burning of books (Ka-Tzetnik, who burned his first book of poems) and especially the story of the mysterious figure of the bookseller Solomon Rappoport.

Rappoport hosts Be'er in his library, which turns out to be an empty room with one book - an empty space that subverts our common notion of the library. The one book deals with the destruction of Galicia, and was written by An-Ski about his journeys in Jewish areas during World War I. Inside its pages are preserved, rescued, burnt scraps of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Rappoport relates that his father had collected the rescued scraps on the morning of the day following the Nazis' night of book-burning. Ostensibly this story sanctifies the book and therefore Be'er turns it into a material object with a spiritual and emotional charge, that is to say, into a fetish that substitutes for the thing itself, the nature of the cause of the conflagration from which the burnt scraps were rescued. The burnt scraps become the main thing, or, more accurately, a symbol of the main thing.

But Be'er walks a tightrope between the sanctification of the fetish and its undermining. To deal with the fetishism, Be'er repeatedly sets in motion mechanisms of subversion every time he is ensnared in the charms of a fetish: By means of Rappoport, he defines antiquaries as haters of books; he clarifies that the copy of "The Blue Piano" that was given to him is in fact from the second edition, which is considered less valuable than the first; and, in effect, he repeatedly talks about the powerlessness of writing a book. While he uses the book to symbolize - by means of the burning of "The Metamorphosis" and its rescue - the destruction and death of the period of the Holocaust, at the same time he also subverts the reliability of Rappoport's story about "the rescued scraps."

At first, another character in the novel, Prof. Bilker-Bolker, refutes Rappoport's entire story as tear-jerking fiction; later, Katrina, Sussman's beloved and Be'er's acquaintance from the event that honored the publication of his book "The Pure Element of Time," in German translation, tells Be'er that in fact there are two books about the destruction in Galicia: The first of them had belonged to Rappoport's father, who had indeed inserted into it burnt fragments of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," which he had gathered from the square after the Nazis' night of book-burning; however, Katrina also tells Be'er that the second copy is a book Rappoport purchased and into which he had inserted fragments of "The Metamorphosis," which he himself had burnt. Rappoport, who could not bear to part from the original, forged a reproduction of the book, including the burnt fragments from "The Metamorphosis," and sent it to a special memorial exhibition that was held in Germany 40 years after that ominous night to mark the anniversary of the burning of the books.

In Walter Benjamin's terms, it is possible to argue that the "aura" that stems from the unique nature of the book with the burnt scraps inside it has thus been negated. Firstly, because both the book on the destruction of Galicia and "The Metamorphosis" are copies of editions that had large print runs and secondly, by virtue of the existence of a one-time reproduction, a unique connection between the book and the rescued fragments. However, as far as Rappoport is concerned, the aura of the original, which he has kept in his home, has been preserved. Ultimately, when Be'er finds a book from the library of Rappoport's father, a volume of which Rappoport had been looking for desperately, and wants to give it to Rappoport, the bookseller is no longer alive. And so the closing of the literary plot-line is thwarted: The obvious linearity in the transition from reality to its symbol (the book), and from the original (with the aura) to its reproduction, and in both cases from the "real" thing to the representation of it, becomes an incoherent fragment or a move that will never be resolved.

This mechanism of self-subverting fetishization characterizes most of the book. The act of subversion rescues Be'er from the relationship that sanctifies the book and from an uncritical presentation of the fact that he is writing at Wannsee, the place known for the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which the decisions for implementing The Final Solution were taken. Therefore, moral criticism is possible, even of the literary act in the context of which it exists. Just like he recommends (in Rappoport's name) dealing with the Nazi aesthetic by probing contemplation of it, and not by ignoring it. And thus, too, in an art book store in Berlin where Be'er finds an architectural guide to Nazi art and where the saleswoman tells him about "three thick volumes containing a wealth of photographs, a great many of them in color." However, says Be'er - and here he could be quoting the saleswoman or talking to himself: "The obvious disadvantage of the learned text is that it is written in objective language, ostensibly, that does not take a moral position regarding the art objects."

The supposed "objectivity" of scholarliness results in irony with respect to all scholarliness, and especially his own, when he asks: "Isn't there too much didacticism and an excess of scholarliness, something that is liable to look to readers like a desperate attempt on the part of the other to compensate for his ignorance?" And in the same way as he criticizes himself for his own scholarliness, he also scorns praises of others, like the flattery writers hear about their achievements that exceed those of their fellow writers.

Probing question

Ultimately, the book poses a probing question about representative validity and the power of action in the world of books. This is how Rappoport tells it: "If we put the two of them together, the Hasidic tale and the Italian story, we could say that the library is the mirror image of the society that lives alongside it. But this isn't evidence that love prevails between them. Society is indeed aware of the presence of the books and it does not distract itself from the fact that even the least of its deeds is destined to be reflected in them; but the books, which are not obligated to reciprocity, sometimes add to the value of the deeds and sometimes deny them all significance. From libraries, however sophisticated and varied they might be, it is impossible to resurrect a people."

Be'er's fictional biography, which is dipped in self-irony (for example, in the way he describes his attitude approaching that of the journal Keshet and the Canaanite movement), prevents any possibility of sacralization of the "writing-I," who is the writer-I. He writes about his flaws as a writer, his indecision, his moral problems in his reaction to his visit to the secret home of a Nazi general and above all about his inability to realize the potential and transform the book he is writing from random anecdotes and crumbs of things into a coherent plot.

And indeed, "Upon a Certain Place" is in fact a book about the inability to write another book, the title of which, as noted, is "Words Without a Land." The abandonment of the idea of writing this book also stems from Be'er's understanding the powerlessness inherent in the project he has taken upon himself. When in pathetic and overloaded language Be'er describes his farewell to Berlin and to Rappoport by means of a ceremony in which he sows grains of wheat on the wind at track 17 at Grunewald, where the transports of Jews set off, he sums up the whole matter in a different voice that affords a new, alternative meaning to the entire bleak description that preceded it. He does so without assuming even for a moment the complex moral voice he has created in this book, which is mainly a sharp warning lest the book replace the living human reality: "The crows, just as they had come all of a sudden, departed all of a sudden and left the remains of the wheat behind to a frightened squirrel that leaped out of the brick building and skipped joyfully between Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen."