Report From the Valley of Death

Kaniuk's latest novel describes his hospitalization and coma. A mandatory read for every surgery patient and surgeon, and possibly a farewell from one of Israel's best-known authors.

"Al hakhayim ve'al hamavet" ("Between Life and Death") by Yoram Kaniuk, Yedioth Books Sifrei Hemed, 207 pages, NIS 88

The literary evening held recently on the roof of an office building on the city's outskirts was a little odd, but touching. The humidity characteristic of late summer in Tel Aviv clung to everyone. Wine and refreshments were served. And on a makeshift platform sat the author, frail, leaning on a cane, with the mayor propping him up to keep him from falling. One could see that he had been a handsome man in his youth. Suddenly, he needed a pill to keep talking and the audience was seized with fear. One after the other, actors, singers, poets, writers, the former education minister and others, most of them from a different, younger generation, came on stage and read from his works. As if they had come to bid farewell to the writer, who was saying farewell to them with what might be his last book. The paparazzi snapped away. After all, there were some celebrities in the crowd. He is trendy nowadays.

Then the writer spoke, exactly the way he writes: flitting from one memory to the next, mixing past and present, scenes from Tel Aviv, New York and Stockholm in a charming jumble, but always coming back to the killing fields of 1948. That war crops up, over and over, as if all the decades that have gone by have been reduced to nothing, just like in the book. For the most part, members of that generation are living full lives - women, children, adventures, travels - and what are they nostalgic about? A war that took place more than half a century ago. At the end of their lives, if not their whole lives, they pine for a chapter in history that is glorious to some and represents the height of infamy for others. Left or right, you will hear no doubts or regrets or repentance from these heroes of 1948.

"Between Life and Death" is Yoram Kaniuk's blackest book, not only because of its cover. Four months in hospitals, weeks in a coma, cancer ravaging his body, surgical incisions ripping open, near-death - all this left its mark on the book and on the broken man sitting on the podium. Hollywood is producing a movie based on his book "Adam Resurrected," "Life on Sandpaper" was a bestseller, and on the roof of a desolate office building on the edge of the city, people are bidding Kaniuk farewell and applauding him on a late summer's night.

One can like Kaniuk or not, but his style is unmistakable: a raw tide of words and associations that are almost unedited and cannot bear an editor's touch (with all due respect to Kaniuk's editor, Rana Werbin), as polished and smooth as sandpaper. "Between Life and Death" is no different in that regard, but the circumstances of its writing add an extra jolt, a smack across the brow or a punch in the belly that betrayed him. "A deathly illness dropped down from the sky and swallowed up everyone I knew, leaving no one behind." Only Kaniuk remains to tell the tale.

Kaniuk, no small hypochondriac in the past, took sick and found himself on the operating table. There were complications, and now there's a book. Kaniuk has written a highly readable and accessible book, but there are two components that will add to the reading experience: familiarity with the city of Tel Aviv in all its beauty and ugliness, and familiarity with Ichilov hospital, in all its nightmarish horror. The writer of these lines, as fate would have it, has an intimate knowledge of both. For that reason, my reading of the book may differ from that of others.

The book is dedicated to "Dr. Oded Szold, with sincere gratitude." I know him. Prof. Zamir Halperin made the diagnosis? I know him. Prof. Yossi Klausner performed the surgery? I know him. Ben Yehuda "Strasse"? Boy, do I know it. Kaniuk writes about his childhood at Ben Yehuda 129. In his book "A Tale of Love and Darkness," Amoz Oz writes about his aunt's house on Ben Yehuda 175, from which his mother left for her last walk, returning only to commit suicide. Neighbors, neighbors. The only one I don't know is Dr. Dayan, "the prettiest doctor around."

And yet there are some differences: The "painless" colonoscopy Prof. Halperin performed on Kaniuk was not exactly painless in my case, although Halperin was indeed a fine fellow, to quote Kaniuk. Kaniuk found it encouraging that Halperin had some health problems himself. To me, that is frightening. If these immortal doctors, in whose hands we place our fate, can't take care of themselves, how are they going to cure us? "The Lord of Hosts," the "King of the Ward," the "Flower of the Nation," the "God of the Hospital" - these are Kaniuk's names for the professor, the head of the ward where he was hospitalized and operated on (Prof. Klausner). Outsiders will never understand.

His descriptions are all too familiar: "The faint whir of electronic instruments. The son of mother Sarah lies with his face to the light, listening to the hum. They give me an injection. The chill suits the occasion, and the professor says: 'Don't worry! I'm here,' and I sink.

I want to get back to my natural state, but I have no natural state. I am a frightened corpse. The eyes of the professor get closer and closer, and I slip into freezing nothingness. Everything stops." Terrifying.

And doesn't this ring a bell? "Lying there, asleep but not asleep, I suddenly saw myself from the outside. I looked at Yoram Kaniuk and tried to understand who, what and where, but could not, for the life of me, figure out what was what" - this text should be mandatory reading for every surgery patient, for every surgeon, for anyone who is awaiting the scalpel, for anyone who is about to wield it. The same is true for other feelings articulated by Kaniuk: "In my mind, I cursed all the healthy people out there. They may be saying 'poor Yoram,' but they're really thinking about themselves. They're scared of what could happen to them. About being in the same boat someday."

One can argue with Yoram Kaniuk. He hates the thingie they put on his finger to measure the oxygen level of his blood. The "monster claw," he calls this painless little device. How spoiled can you get? Is there a milder instrument of torture in all of Ichilov? Not the tubes up your nose? Not the catheter? Just that measly spring on your finger?

His hallucinations are also enviable: A Lebanese man chopped into pieces and stuffed into shoeboxes. Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin delivering a fiery speech over his father's old radio. Who but a writer would have hallucinations like that? Ordinary people like me have visions of Diet Sprite when the Great Thirst looms and the only thing you are allowed to put in your mouth is a musty wad of water-soaked cotton. Perhaps that explains Kaniuk's observation at the end of the book that when he goes to the great ER in the sky, he will return to those hallucinations of his, because they made life richer than it is today.

Another feeling he captures well: "Two gum-chewing hospital orderlies picked me up like a vet picks up a cat, dropped me in a tub, and disappeared. There I lay, mortified, trying to avert my eyes." Later, the nurses notice a picture of him on the back of the book on his bedside table, and "suddenly it hit them: This thing they were taking care of may have been human once." Mortified in a tub? A live human being? A cat at the vet's? How true, and how terrible. Kaniuk deserves thanks for his courageous report from the Valley of Death.

He also deserves thanks for his marvelous account of his rehab walks with Simon, the Israeli Filipino who dreamed of being a postman, but was sent to Kaniuk by the National Insurance Institute to escort him around the city as an aide to the elderly. "Simon walked me home, and outside the house I shook his large hand and said: Thank you. He smiled his sweet smile, and I went in, to get on with the rest of my life."

"No band playing, no beauty, no majesty. Just like that. Death, plain and simple. Nothing." Scary. "And now, as an old man with cancer and a ruptured hernia, I say good-bye." Parting words.