Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review of Yoel Hoffmann's Bernhard, by Allen Hibbard

Bernhard, Yoel Hoffmann. (Tel Aviv: Keter, 1991). Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Treister and Eddie Levenston. (New York: New Directions, 1998)
Review by Allen Hibbard

The most immediately striking feature of this novel, the second available to us in English from the wonderful Romanian-born Israeli writer Yoel Hoffmann, is its unique structure. Covering an eight-year period from 1938 to 1946, the book is divided into 172 short sections, the majority of which are contained within a single page. Each section ends with a phrase that, repeated, opens the following section. The story, set primarily in Jerusalem, revolves around Bernhard Stein, who has become a widower just prior to the beginning of the novel. Even at the novel's close, as he writes about his wife's death to her sister, Bernhard is grieving. During the years of the war (while Hitler invades Poland, Rommel is defeated in Egypt, and the US drops bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Bernhard grieves, conjures up his past life in Berlin, talks with his friend Gustav, and constructs fictional characters who roughly parallel the central players in his own life.

The minutiae of daily personal life are juxtaposed with historical events. ...In some odd way this novel might be considered a myth of national origins, a story of modern Israel in its fetal state. ...The mood here is hardly jubilant; rather, Bernhard seems to trudge about in a state of numbness and sorrow. an uncanny calm belies, masks, or denies underlying conflicts and tensions associated with the legitimacy of territorial claims. The ver (postmodern) form of the novel allows the silences to have a powerful presence. The words are as sparse as stones in a desert; a star dialogue between the said and the unsaid. [Allen Hibbard, The Review of Contemporary Fiction]

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