A Review of Yoel Hoffmann's Katschen & The Book of Joseph
Translated from the Hebrew by David Kriss, Alan Treister and Eddie Levenston
New Directions, 1998
Cooper Renner

Can 1900 years of Jewish history -- exiles, pogroms, the Holocaust and its aftermath -- be distilled into 90-odd pages? Yes, if the writer of those pages is Yoel Hoffmann. The Book of Joseph, the first of two novellas collected here, manages to combine strict realism and dreamlike surrealism, employing non sequitur and a strong sense of the absurd, along with sharply defined characterizations to create a distinctive voice and a novel approach to community and family life. The central characters are the widower Joseph and his young son Yingele, who thrive despite the death of their wife and mother Chaya-Leah, supported not simply by their love for each other, but also by the closeness of their friends and community. Hoffmann weaves all these lives together, in discrete short sections mostly as short as micro-fictions and in an asynchronous fashion: the joint life of father and son, Joseph's life as a son and young husband, the lives of their friends. The discordant notes -- the clashing threads, if you will -- are the scenes from the life of young German Siegfried as the 1930s advance, and the reader instinctively dreads the coming together of Siegfried and Joseph. Hoffmann's distanced tone renders even the thoughts of the characters in such a fashion that they appear more like reportage than internal monologue. Similarly Hoffmann neither exalts sexuality (eroticism) nor demeans it (pornography), but rather presents it as simply another facet of human existence. The only false step in this magnificent novella is the lengthy free verse section which comes near the end and seems like an instance of Hoffmann's strength mangled into weakness.
Katschen, shorter and arguably more conventionally structured, is no less dreamlike and powerful in its more narrowly focused tale of a young Jewish boy growing up in Palestine as his family falls apart: his mother dies young, his father is institutionalized, and his Uncle Arthur and Aunt Oppenheim disagree about the best course for the orphaned boy. There is no doubt, however, about the intensity with which these people love the boy, as does Arthur's good friend Max, who is almost like another uncle. The book unfolds for us through Katschen's eyes, and again the thoughts and dreams of the characters seem almost as real to the reader as the external "verifiable" events of his life. The tale is in fact an exquisite portrait of a young child's mind and of the way in which thought and dream tangle with reality for the young and how the melding of these components seems utterly unreasonable and inexplicable to adults. It is also an intriguing glance at the early kibbutzim and at the various groups -- including Arabs and Yemeni Jews -- mingling in the Holy Land in this time period.
These are both astonishingly fine works which should be much better known than they are. (I stumbled across the book in the 'library' on a cruise ship.)