By Paths of Light
Yoel Hoffmann, The Heart Is Katmandu
Translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole
New York: New Directions, 2001
published in American Book Review 23:4 (May-June 2002)
Yoel Hoffmann is a writer of interesting sentences: each carries its own precise weight and movement, its own share of intrigue, the way it throws the reader off balance. “At age 43, Yehoahim seldom ate cucumbers. Sights distracted him (how Ehud Vazana washes his Ford Fiesta under the poplar tree while small birds chirp over his head, et cetera).” So begins his latest novel, The Heart is Katmandu. That first brief paragraph marks the pace of a narrative, in 237 short chapters, which slowly and sinuously tells a story of new love at the brink of middle age.
The scenes that are lived, glimpsed, imagined, in present-day Haifa, are sparely evoked. Seldom does he mention specific history of time and place (that this is Israel where the story unfolds, that somewhere else there was a Holocaust); more important is the immediacy of street names, the local café, the nearness of the sea. Through it all runs a philosophical undercurrent that follows the protagonist’s thoughts as the development of love awakens him anew to the world.
The novel proceeds by moments of illumination. Hoffmann’s very brevity and his quick changing focus, paradoxically, yield a lush, wide-ranging text. The writing seems utterly simple, unassuming; at the same time, it is quite complex in its variegated texture, the many shifts in perception that sketch out an indirect path. Sometimes he even offers us a metaphor by which to think of his text, like the philodendron that is “the axis around which this plot revolves, since it starts everywhere as a kind of enormous mirror.”
Yet already in the second chapter (still on the first page), he brings us right to the essential drama in the story: the difficulty for two people to come together.
Yesterday, for instance, he ran into Batya.
Behind her he saw the coast of Acre and the refineries and, nevertheless, he asked in an ordinary manner: “How are you?”
How are you?! (he thought later). For how might she be? The five toes of each foot (hers and mine), and together that makes twenty. . . .
The wide margins, incidentally, are crucial to this work, lending a rhythm to its reading that is more akin to poetry. Because, how to write in such a way and not give the lines space to breathe and resonate?
But if the love story propels the text, at each turn the reader cannot guess where it will light upon next. Midway through the novel, in what could be the work’s guiding principle, we are told: “All sorts of signs bear witness that things which only seem to be small, and in fact every gesture, even of the little finger, can overturn worlds.” By then, Yehoahim has plucked up the courage to call Batya, they meet at the café, and are on their way to her place where they first make love.
The entire story takes no more than a few days, and runs its course over a small circuit of blocks that all appear to be within walking distance. Along the way, we learn only a smattering of details about the main characters: that Yehoahim’s wife left him, and that Batya has a “Mongolian baby” plus a suitor she doesn’t love; but we never know what they do, nor how they look, nor where they came from. The point is, all these elements that are supposed to be important in fiction are easily dispensed with in this tale. It is feeling, and the runaway train of thought, that shape the reality here.
As in his earlier novels and novellas, but with more force given his subject, Hoffmann writes in a language of miracles. This language reflects an amused attitude toward the world that is fresh, never tired, and always open. At times, his quirky sentences have the mystery of a zen koan; at others, they seem to spring right from the centuries-old tradition of Yiddish magical realism (“He raises his right hand up through the ceiling and the clouds and grabs hold of the moon between his thumb and forefinger.”). Yet even his plainest statements, which are the most frequent, pack more than any ordinary string of words.
Born in Romania and now in his mid-60s, Hoffmann has published six books of fiction since the late 1980s, which quickly earned him a unique place in Israeli literature. Writers and critics recognize that there is no one else like him. A longtime scholar of Hebrew literature, Western philosophy, and Japanese Buddhism, he is a professor of Eastern Philosophy at the University of Haifa. His three books that previously appeared in English from New Directions (Katschen and The Book of Joseph; Bernhard; The Christ of Fish) were heavily weighted toward the past, set mostly in Central Europe before and since World War II, and Palestine before statehood. Each in their way seeks to know how to live in the present when the burden of personal and human tragedies might easily be overwhelming. The new work, by contrast, is weighted toward the future, to the benefit of the present, and allows itself, in the name of love (which is not only requited here, but is still blooming by story’s end), to be even hopeful.
Translated with nuance and sensitivity by the poet Peter Cole (who performed such marvels with two of the great Andalusian-Jewish poets from medieval Spain, Shmuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol), The Heart Is Katmandu proffers its revelations each in their own time for the characters. Indeed, the few times it is mentioned, Katmandu signals a progression in their mutual approach: early on it appears as a metaphor of distance and uncertainty for a loved one who is far away; invoked later in the book, once each for the two lovers, it suggests that they are already winding their way through the innermost streets and alleys of that fabled city toward their cherished goal. When at last they arrive, as though purified in their love, the difficult journey gives rise to a new day where “all is created anew,” so that “everything has a name, and the name has one as well.”