Although Kaniuk started writing Soap in 1959, the novel was discovered in a cardboard box in the author’s study only after his death, and this is the first time it has been published.
The late 1940s: Israel’s War of Independence is over, and soldiers have gone on to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and realize their dreams. Among them is Yosef, a quiet, naïve fellow, his friends think. He registers to study chemistry and rents an apartment on the roof of a building that was a monastery before the war. His friend Avi, a daring fighter in the Palmach, is very attached to Aya, a war widow and femme fatale who toys with men. A tempestuous type, Avi wants to be an artist, but in the meantime he makes a living selling gold fillings and rings he took from Arabs during the war.
A circle of friends takes shape and meets on the roof of Yosef’s building. One of them is Ruthie who, unlike the others, came from the camps in Europe. She goes to art school; her neighbors call her “the refugee” and suspect she isn’t Jewish. Ruthie soon accepts to marry Yosef, hoping to free herself from the nightmares of her past. But the marriage is short and ends in tragedy: Ruthie, the subject of Nazi medical experiments, dies in childbirth. In a letter she leaves behind, she asks Yosef to find her father Joszef. He was a violinist and had studied philosophy but later became the most popular clown-comedian in Germany before the war. And his popularity saved his life: at the death camp, he had the job of playing music and making jokes on the way to the gas chambers. He even played and joked when he saw his wife and younger daughter go to their death. In 1950, Joszef comes to Israel to look for Ruthie, but the strange, unfriendly country—where Holocaust survivors are sneeringly called “soaps”—drives him to the edge. He feels he will never be able to leave, even when he wants to.
An ambitious novel, profound and gripping—vintage Kaniuk!
How I have missed having a good book by Yoram Kaniuk to read. They don’t write like this anymore, and more’s the pity. It is worth taking a risk and writing expressionistically, surrealistically and wildly like Kaniuk, as long as you have the audacity and the talent. A marvelous book.
Ran Yagil, Haaretz