Six years ago, while I was living in Boston, my dad sent me two books as a birthday present. One was "Dancing Arabs" by Sayed Kashua. The other was "Life on Sandpaper" by Yoram Kaniuk.
I went through the Kashua book in two days and found it rather agreeable. Then came the Kaniuk. I knew him to be an experimental Hebrew author, a challenging one. His novel "Adam Resurrected", a peculiar tale touching on both the Holocaust and the gravel of Israeli deserts, whisky and sexuality, was turned into a theatre piece performed in an authentic circus tent. Another novel "His Daughter" was the darkest bestseller of Israel's 80s.
"Life on Sandpaper" turned out to be autobiographical in the wider, literary sense of the word. It opens with the words: "There was a war and I was wounded." The war was that of 1948. The teenage Kaniuk, who lied about his age in order to join the Palmach units, got shot in the leg on the slope on Jerusalem's Mt. Zion. Confused and somewhat shell shocked, he left the country as a sailor on a merchant fleet and wound up in New York. Here he spent nearly his entire 20s, working as a painter and living the Jazz scene. He was a close friend of Charley Parker and, having married a Broadway dancer, a familiar face in the glittier circles.
Stories of Sinatra, Brando and Dean aside, what made "Life on Sandpaper" sensational were the travel tales. Kaniuk and his friends found their way to Guatemala, to Newfoundland and to the further reaches of the American West. Everything in the book was written manically, rhythmically. I didn't realize that such writing could exist. Having swallowed it all, I went directly ahead and wrote a tale of my own travels in Eastern France to a similar beat. My life as an author was changed.
Two years later, while living again in Israel, I got a phone call. Ilana Shahaf of the Sde Boker educational center, an outpost of Hebrew intelligentsia in the Negev desert, asked a favor of me. She invited Kaniuk to speak of the desert in his works. He was freshly out of the hospital following a severe illness and needed a chaperon. Would I mind accompanying him?
I wasn't really into it. Kaniuk's writing was so good as to convince me he'd be an intolerable character. Ilana insisted and I found myself spending a whole day with my literary idol. on the long way south I learned more about him: his life through the bohemian 60s and 70s, running a theatre, drinking heavily and composing "The Last Jew", perhaps modern Hebrew's richest and most original masterpiece. I learned of the house north of Tel-Aviv which he shared in those times with his second, graceful wife Miranda, two daughters and a whole menagerie of animals, of his current life in the city, of the illness that very nearly killed him, of his astonishing sweetness and sense of humour.
In the desert, on a cliff top overlooking the Tzin valley, Kaniuk said: "People say the desert is beautiful, this isn't beautiful. This is awe inspiring. Paris is beautiful." Since then I was fortunate enough to visit Paris with him. He has become my most special and admired friend. Over the years I saw him go through at least one more serious illness and emerge victorious, publish two new books, have his work turned into a Hollywood film as well as into one of the finest television dramas produced here, make many other new friends and fortify his status as one of this country's true cultural treasures.
This week he is 80 years old, and completely in his prime. I can't remember myself being so glad at anyone's birthday, nor so greatful.