December 2013

Jesse Kohn


An Interview with Dror Burstein

Dror Burstein is a telescope. To read Netanya, the Israeli author's new memoir, is to pass inside the Givatayim observatory where Burstein's grandfather once accompanied him, where the magnified vision of the moon so overwhelmed him that he spent the next two days bedridden, stomaching neither food nor conversation. His astronomy teacher heard of Burstein's ailment without surprise -- he only lamented the fact that though we have invented sunglasses, we have nothing to guard against this sort of surplus of moon. I'd argue that most of us have no need for such moonglasses; we wear them all the time. Burstein's telescope simply removes them from our downward gawping faces, lifts us by the chin and lets the light flow "into the open eye as though through a drain pipe." The result is not merely the memoirs of the author, but a kind of memoir of the universe, painted with precise restraint by one of its more perceptive constituents.

Netanya is the second of Burstein's books to be translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Kin, more kaleidoscopic than telescopic, encircles the circumnavigations of a fractured family failing to reconfigure itself. The narrative centers -- though, as in any kaleidoscope, this center is cracked open and pushed piecemeal to the peripheries -- on Emile's adoptive father, Yoël, and his utterly unfeasible endeavor to reunite Emile, now thirty-something, with his biological mother and father, whose absentness and otherness Burstein eerily arouses with the arid appellations [    ] and [    ]. It's an alluring and mysterious read, which like the family in it, never quite coalesces into a traditional configuration.

I felt a little guilty, this last Monday morning, usurping Burstein's presence from the neighboring museums where he prefers to pass his time when in New York. Burstein, lured away from his native Tel Aviv to participate in the PEN World Voices Festival the previous weekend, only had a few days left before his flight back home. He met me in a café on Second Avenue, and ordered one of whatever I was having -- a cup, as it so happened, of oolong tea.

There's a passage in Netanya where you describe yourself lying facedown on a park bench. You're holding your notebook up above you as you write. The night sky becomes a kind of table on which you are resting it. Did you ever really write in that position?

No, no. It's impossible of course to hold the notebook up high for more than three minutes. I meant it more as a metaphor for writing, using the night sky as a metaphorical table, as a kind of background. It's something I've been trying to do ever since I started writing. My first prose lines were about a space journey from the sun into Netanya, the city where I was born. To use the sky as a platform for writing, that's what I try to do.

I ask because while reading I felt like I was constantly made aware of my own bodily position. Often, I would stop, just to look up at the sky, think about where I was. I was wondering if that is part of your intention, to draw your reader into an awareness of his or her own physical position?

I wouldn't say its an intention, but I think it's... well, maybe an obvious intention of every art, to have the viewer or the reader not just immerse himself in it, to not just sit back and relax, but to stop every once in a while to look inside himself. It can be, like you said, something more physical. But it can also raise memories... But really there is no intention with this book. I wrote it in a month and a half, day by day. Every morning actually, from July to August, a couple of years ago, 2011. I didn't know what I was doing, let alone thinking about readers. But, post-factum, yes, you're right.

I noticed that you gave the readers a similarly active role in Kin. In an early passage, you liken an apocalyptic landscape to a vase that's been broken. You write that after millions of years, maybe some of these pieces could come back together, and life could re-begin on earth. I found this image immediately echoed the literal structure of the book -- these shards of narration that the reader encounters... Like it's our job to put it back together. I'm curious why, in your words, you chose not to write Kin as a linear narrative.

Again, it's not something I chose. I began by writing poetry and I thought of myself as a poet for many years. I arrived at writing prose quite by accident. Maybe that's one of the reasons that my prose has a more fragmental quality to it. I still think like a poet. That's from a biographical point of view, but I can also think of it from a more theoretical point of view. This has something to do with your former question. I do believe that in order for a text to make use of or react in some way... it has to give you some space. Those best-selling novels are sometimes very, very effective. You can actually read them from cover to cover during a flight. But they don't give you any space. They act like films in a way. You just find yourself hypnotized by them. Sometimes I like this quality of prose. But I like a book that throws you out every once in a while. This manipulation, this hypnotizing of the reader has some merits and has some... You end up reading such a book and you don't remember where you were, just kind of floating. If it's good, it has to be broken eventually, every once in a while... The structure of a fragmentary novel can do that. You almost have to stop and enter again, get up and enter again. It can shake you and restart your thinking. Some readers don't like that. Some readers expect the opposite. They want to enter and just flow to the end. I can understand that, but that's not the way I write.

Is that the kind of literature you find yourself most attracted to, fragmentary novels?

I read mostly poetry, actually. Poetry and nonfiction -- science books in the last five, six, seven years. When I was a child around the age of thirteen, fourteen that's the stuff I used to read, especially astronomy books and geology books. More recently, I found myself rereading this kind of literature. To tell you the truth, I find it much more interesting than imaginary novels. Maybe it's because I spent -- I don't know -- twenty years reading all the major European novels. Maybe I got tired of that. It will come back one day, I guess. I remember reading nineteenth century prose with great enthusiasm, let's say, ten years ago. Balzac and Dostoevsky... If a science book is written with quality prose, I prefer that to any fictional prose. There are some great, well-written science books. Some of them are mentioned openly in Netanya. I really like the writing of Peter D. Ward and his colleague Donald Brownlee. The books they wrote together and the books Ward wrote alone have had a great influence on these two last books, more than any fiction book I can think of. These books tell a story. They deal with reality, like any author tries to do but they're more convincing, because they're scientists.

The facts you glean from these science books, how do they change or transform by being replanted into your books?

I don't know how I can answer that. What I can say is that because I read these kinds of books when I was a child, childhood and science have become kind of intertwined in my mind. They became one experience, the experience of exploring the universe through astronomy. When I think about my childhood, I think about the moon and I think about the stars. It's very natural to me. The interweaving of my memories and science is not intellectual to me. It's very natural, very organic. It is really my basic childhood experience. Most of the things I describe really happened. I altered them, naturally, but I did go with my father to an astronomy conference in the Negev Desert, and I did build the telescope...

You also appear briefly in Kin, as a schoolfellow in Emile's class. Was that book drawn from your life as well?

No, not at all. Kin emerged from a conversation with a friend, a friend I knew for, say, ten years before this specific conversation. We were talking about something -- I don't remember what -- and suddenly he said, "I'm adopted. I was adopted as a child." I thought he was pulling my leg. How come he didn't tell me anything about that? Really, I'd known him for ten years and he never mentioned that. It was a very shocking experience because of one little detail. His last name is an Ashkenazi name -- you know what Ashkenazi is? A Jew from European origin. But his complexion is darker. When he said that he's adopted, I suddenly saw him again as what he is. I had never thought about it other than that. I mean, I don't care about those things, but there was kind of a gap or a fissure between him and his name all of a sudden. I think in this gap, this book... I started writing it the day after that. That said, although not a single description is my description or my family's, metaphorically, I think I always felt -- not like an adopted child, but... well, yes, like I'm adopted in some sort of way. I mean this astronomy thing is just one example of that. If you're building a telescope when you're a child, you live in your own world. In a sense that's not so far from being adopted, like being removed from a larger context. So maybe that's why I chose to write about adoption. I thought maybe I could understand how it feels to be both inside and outside a familial context.

In Netanya you draw such large webs of kinship. It reaches all the way back to the trilobites and all the way forward to the end of the world. If we can think of trilobites as our forefathers, in that sense, we all come from the same place. It makes me think that these familial structures we've created -- these connections that make it possible to be unconnected with so many others so that there could be something like adoption -- they seem a little bit artificial.

Yes, it's interesting. I haven't thought about it. I don't know if it has something to do with adoption in particular, but it gives you a different perspective about our notion of family. Most of us don't even know the names of our great-grandparents. That's only a few generations back. Our sense of kinship is very narrow. Once you start thinking about existence in astronomical and geological terms, you can see that the lineage goes far behind the human species. There's a sense of belonging to a larger family, not just your own family. I have a trilobite on my desk. He was there three, four hundred million years ago. We tend to forget them, but they are a part of our world. They are not specifically our forbearers. We are not from the lineage of trilobites, but it doesn't matter. You have many more fathers and mothers and grandfathers than your own. It's kind of calming. I don't know why, but I like to think about it.

How do you feel about your work being read by English speakers, about extending your work beyond Hebrew literature into world literature?

As long as I don't have to read it in English myself, that's fine. I'm very grateful for every human being that finds something in these texts. But I had a very strange experience the last couple of days at the PEN Festival. I had to read aloud some excerpts from Kin, in English. It's a very funny feeling. Of course, I know every detail in this book, but I haven't thought any of these words. When I read it, I can hear the original in the background, and the original is so very different. It's a combination of something very familiar, the most familiar, and something that is quite strange and far away. It gives an uncanny quality to the text. Even though the translations themselves are very good, it's just not the same. But what can I do? Not everyone knows Hebrew. I should add that as a reader, translation is immensely important to me. Without translations into Hebrew and English -- the two languages I can read -- I wouldn't be the same person, absolutely not the same author. I've been influenced much more by foreigners than by Israeli writers. Chinese, Japanese, Polish, American and German authors are the most important writers for me. Translation can bring you something that you wouldn't have had from your own culture. I mean, some things have substitutes -- you can read an American novel or a Spanish novel and it may be more or less the same, genre-speaking. But if you don't have translators from Japanese, for example, you wouldn't have haiku. There's no parallel to haiku in any other culture. It's not just a genre, the genre of haiku, but a whole worldview. There are many examples of that. As a reader, I really am in favor of translation. Trilobites and Japanese poets from the seventeenth century are my fathers in the same way.

I'm wondering if you can give a non-Hebrew speaker some examples, something particular about Hebrew that just can't possibly be translated into English?

I don't think I can generalize about that. It's got something to do with music. I'll give an example from the Book of Genesis. In English, it begins with, "In the beginning God created..." The English gives you the content... But in Hebrew the first two words are "bereshit bara." You can hear a b and an r in both words, "bereshit" and "bara." So there's a connection. "Bereshit" is "in the beginning," more or less, and "bara" is "created." Now the words in the English, "In the beginning God created..." are all separate words, but in Hebrew "bereshit" and "bara," while being two separate words do, at the same time, reflect one another. "The beginning" and "creation" are like two variations of the same word. This cannot possibly be translated. This is just a small example but it happens all the time. And that brings us back to your first question. I started by writing poetry, and I still think of my prose as prose poems or poetic prose. I don't know if it's good poetry. I'm not saying anything about the quality, but something objective about the genre. This poetic level of the writing can hardly be translated. However, when Todd [Hasak-Lowy], for example, translated Netanya, I think he tried to compensate, by finding another musical structure in English, and he succeeded. It's compensation. It's not equivalent to what I've done, but it's good compensation.

While on the subject of translation, there's another passage in Netanya where your astronomy teacher is drawing these connections between the galaxies and bacteria colonies. You suggest in the book that maybe it's the unique task of human existence to act as a kind of translator between these macrocosms and microcosms. You add that until now we have failed at our job as translators. I was wondering how, in your opinion, we could begin to take up this job of translation.

I'll give an example from yesterday. I was walking in Central Park, hearing Bach's Goldberg Variations in my earphones, waiting for the Metropolitan Museum to be open, and suddenly I saw a tree. There are some magnificent trees here that we don't have in Israel. I don't know how to explain it, but somehow I felt a very strong connection between the music and the tree. I don't want to sound mystical. I'm not a mystical person, but you can really feel that there is something in the music that grows organically, grows the same way a tree grows. They belong to the same existence, to the same world. To be more specific, to the same -- how should I put it... You can feel a common force at work in both the tree and the music. But trees cannot hear music. They don't have ears, as far as we know, and the recording doesn't know there is a tree. I mean Bach never visited Central Park. But there you are in the middle, and with your consciousness you make them meet each other. They meet within you. They don't meet -- they can't shake hands. The handshaking happens inside of you. The microbes and the galaxies work in the same way, because whoever or whatever created this world... I don't know what I can say about him or it or whatever. But one thing that's almost sure is this entity -- you want to call it God or anything else -- can handle very large structures, like clusters of galaxies and the whole universe and subatomic particles within the same capability and mind. We are somewhere in the middle -- not exactly in the middle, but we're there and we can try to hold this very large, long stick in both hands. That's one of the reasons I write. Every work of art does that in a way. Painting or music or gardening... human activity. It can do that.

You can see that in your work. There's such a deep and rigorous conscience -- I mean a strong antipathy towards violence, sympathy for other creatures, respect for the environment and our ancestors… How does your literal day-to-day writing practice fit into that?

For the last year or so I've been working on a book of nonfiction, Pictures of Meat. It's a series of short essays about pictures and paintings that depict animals, both dead and alive. Mostly dead. In the same astronomy class I mention in Netanya, this teacher told us to imagine what would happen if aliens invaded earth and started to eat us, the way we eat chickens, for example. We said to him, "But we are intelligent. We can play the piano, we can love and have kids. Why would you eat us?" And the aliens would say, "Yeah, but that's what chickens would say to you. You just cannot understand their language." It made a large impression on me then and I've tried to be a vegetarian since that age, unsuccessfully for many years. I am now.

I don't know if this answers your question, but this small book about pictures of animals is, for me, the most important thing I've ever done. It will be published this year in Hebrew. If you compare the way a typical European painting depicts fish, for example, and the way a typical, classical Chinese painting depicts fish, you can find two completely different ways of being with animals. The Chinese eat fish more than us, but in the art, fish are portrayed humanely and with respect. Most of the European pictures I know depict just a bunch of fish, as though to make you -- to raise your appetite, your physical appetite, intellectual appetite. But you can't think of them as influential creatures in these paintings. It's connected to your question about the fragmentary nature of my prose. When you compare this photo of a dog [points to photograph on the wall of a dog on the beach running toward the camera] and a Chinese or Japanese picture of a dog or any other animal, you would see that the Chinese or Japanese artist would care much less about the depiction of every little detail of the dog and its surroundings. All those spaces [gestures around the dog] would be empty. The dog would be made with two or three brush strokes. For me, the purpose of art is not to try to depict reality in all its tiny, minute details. Reality is important to me, but I think we can learn a great deal from Chinese painting -- how to say only what's necessary. From Chinese painting and Japanese poetry. Of course when you write prose you have to be verbose. But if this verbosity that prose tends towards is not balanced by this other way of describing, thinking, looking at the world, I find it can be very tedious. It will be heavy. I try to omit or delete whatever is not necessary. Then sometimes what you get is two blocks of prose with something missing in the middle. I think most European art lovers find it hard to look at Chinese paintings. It just looks wrong to them. But once you know the spiritual foundation of this kind of depiction, you can enjoy it very much. It's had a great influence. What I really want to be is a haiku poet. I do believe that that is the most sophisticated, concise and precise form of literature, and also the most difficult to write.

Do you have a favorite haiku?

Here's one by Basho [translated by R. H. Blyth]:

Along this road
Goes no one;
This autumn evening.