The Risk of Unanticipated Readers

A new novel satirizing the travails of an Israeli in West Africa may make sense to local readers but risks missing the point in translation.

In an essay published in these pages not long ago, the Israeli writer Tomer Gardi discussed at length an interesting phenomenon—the place of the Israeli writer in what he labelled, following Pascale Casanova, “the world republic of letters.” In the essay, Gardi describes his surprise at the reception of his book, Stone Paper—written in Hebrew—by a German audience. “[It] opened my eyes to a community of readers that I never imagined I would have, or that even existed,” he observes. “I happily wrote [this book] without being conscious that a non-Israeli reader would be likely to read what I had written.”

Gardi’s observation came to mind several times whilst I read the recent translation of Professor Schiff’s Guilt, the new book by the Israeli writer Agur Schiff.  Conceived as satire, the novel is at once a comment on a particular type of Israeli and on Israel’s relationship with the wider world. That the book has been translated into another language suggests two things: the merit of the work, and its capacity to tell the wider world something interesting and hopefully true about Israel and the Israelis it portrays. These two criteria are both very specific and subjective; so, who gets to decide that this book fits the bill?

The protagonist of Professor Schiff’s Guilt is the eponymous Agur Schiff, an academic and a self-absorbed layabout (the two are not mutually exclusive). We first meet him in the dock of a court of an unnamed West African country; he is standing trial for contravening this country’s “Law for Adjudicating Slave Traders and their Accomplices.” Schiff’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had, it seems, dipped his toes into the trade in human beings as commercial objects—a commercial venture brought to an abrupt end when his slave ship ran aground of the coast of our host country. Prof. Schiff’s misfortune, it seems, was to have embarked on a journey to discover his antecedents at the very time that his host country had decided to stop succeeding generations from benefiting from the misdeeds of their forebears.

The author-as-narrator conceit aside (and to keep the two separate, I will refer to our protagonist by his honorific, Prof. Schiff, and ask the reader to ignore the fact that the author himself is an emeritus professor at Bezalel Academy of Art), there is a nice contemporary touch here. The question of reparations for the slave trade, important albeit intractable, is one aspect of the wider global conversation of the moment about social justice. However, this book is satire. Which is to say, the mise-en-scène is but a means to magnify absurdities that have somehow become conventional wisdom.  Even at this early point, I think, Professor Schiff’s Guilt begins to flounder under the weight of its well-intentioned responsibility.

The narrative unfolds along three arcs.  The first is Prof. Schiff’s trial.  On arrival in our unnamed country, he engages in ostensibly harmless poverty tourism, wondering at the gaps between his world and theirs. Unsurprisingly, a lack of self-awareness draws attention to himself; his investigation of sorts into the circumstances that led to his ancestor’s slave ship floundering off the coast of his new host country blinker to him the wider and more complex story.

The second arc gives some sense to this complexity. Set before his trial, it describes a series of unfortunate incidents back in Prof. Schiff’s Tel Aviv. He acquires “ownership” (and I use the word advisedly) of Lucille, a migrant worker from Africa, as compensation for a debt; falls in love with her; and loses his head completely. Tami, Prof. Schiff’s wife, is of the long-suffering variety.  Choosing to interpret her husband’s bone-headed priapism as woolly-headed compassion, she finds a job for Lucille, caring for her step-grandfather, Uncle Murdock.  Uncle Murdock, a hundred years old, is quite wealthy.  No one quite knows how, but there are strong pointers of a murky past and derring-do in Africa, where he had been a diplomat and a businessman. It isn’t immediately clear if the presumed wrongs related to his first or second professions.

So far, so clear as mud.  One can read the narratives as caricatures, hoping that at some point they will intersect.  But the third narrative arc, in which Prof. Schiff’s illustrious and/or infamous forebear, Klonimus Zelig Schiff, provides historical content for the present, relies just as much on the fantabulous.

Agur Schiff (the novelist) is clearly a strong writer.  The vivid florid prose he puts in the mouth of his alter ego—translated with sparkling verve by Jessica Cohen—does shape from the sticky raw material of story a textured and nuanced character portrait. Unforgivingly nuanced, I should say, almost to the point of cruelty. But in terms of the broader themes that it addresses, Professor Schiff’s Guilt feels… well, overburdened with guilt.  Prof. Schiff does fulfil a recognizable function: the character who, having worked so hard on his self-portrait, lacks the means to recognize what others see when they gaze upon him. The trouble is, though, that his creator gives him too much to hold him guilty for. Prof. Schiff’s positioning is a confluence of many faults, mostly minor but aggregating as an insufferable whole. He probably isn’t the academic he believes himself to be; he takes his wife’s forbearance as his earned right. His relationship with Lucille (setting aside, for a moment, the matter of his “ownership” of her) is dishonest to the point of delusion; he takes as given an intellectual superiority that he scrupulously avoids testing.

The last is very much on display during his sojourn in the resting place of his ancestor. Conflating compassion with contempt, Prof. Schiff always splits the difference in his favor. When, eventually, he is forced to stare down evidence to the contrary, mainly in his encounters with the state-appointed lawyer tasked with prosecuting the case against him, he falls back on a familiar old chestnut: being inconvenienced by a ludicrous court case (he is isn’t entirely wrong about this) means that he ought to be in a superior situation. The laughs at his expense come easily and quickly. But at times even satire can become oversaturated.  Why, actually, are we being encouraged to laugh at—rather than with—Prof. Schiff?

And herein lies the fundamental flaw in the book. My guess is that an informed and self-aware Israeli reader would recognize many of the tropes that the book pokes at. There’s the argument that the pain of Jewish history sometimes leavens tone-deafness to the pain of others. Absolute belief in the truth of Israel’s origin story. (To be fair, history is always written by the winners.) The fact that the target of Schiff’s caricature and the reader of Schiff’s caricature may very well be on nodding terms with one another. (Yes, my friends of the Israeli liberal left, I am looking at you.)  All these are a reminder that literature in general, and satire quite specifically, can sometimes be very difficult to translate out of its native context. So much for the world republic of letters. One wonders whether sometimes this republic is underwritten by the flattening of nuance, all to serve a supposed global sensibility.

I freely admit that for a good part of the book, I wasn’t entirely certain whether Schiff’s satire was exaggerated documentation of a sociopolitical blindness of this part of the world—or, if it unwittingly was actually a manifestation of this blindness.  Part of this is down to the fact that humor rarely translates well out of the specific social content that engendered it. Prof. Schiff’s unwitting callousness is played up to make a specific point about untested liberal presumptions. But the book could be read, just as easily, as acerbic documentary. Confirmatory bias can be more dangerous than we give it credit for.

So too, amidst the rigorous details of the Israeli sections of the book, the broad-brush splashes coloring the African parallel setting.  Why set the book in an unnamed country? One of the benefits of fiction is that when the facts don’t quite fit, one can just make them up. This isn’t always a bad thing, but the contrast between hyper-specific caricature of Israel alongside placeholder-for-country jars a bit. Again: eventually, I set aside my skepticism long enough to see Professor Schiff’s Guilt as a bit overwrought but well-intentioned. But I have, I should say, the distinct advantage of (1) having grown up in West Africa, and (2) being a long-term resident of Israel—a pretty slender Venn diagram, if you think about it. The average reader of this translation—the citizen of our world republic of letters— might have to work very hard to discern the nuance beneath the noise. Which, I think, is part of a problem about unanticipated readers, like those Tomer Gardi met in Germany. There’s a real risk that they might not get the point.


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