I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir by Rafi Zabor
Life is a journey, not a destination. Rafi Zabor’s memoir I, Wabenzi amply demonstrates how true this aphorism can be. Zabor (née Joel Zaborovsky) offers us “A Souvenir” of his life, which is not only an intriguing alternative to the usual “A Memoir,” but is also very apt since this book is essentially a keepsake of several intermingled journeys of both the physical and spiritual being. The word "Wabenzi" in the title is taken from the African practice of naming tribes as “People of...,” and in this case it means “people who drive Mercedes Benz.”
This volume, purportedly the first of four, begins with Zabor planning to take a trip after his father’s death to sort through all of the emotional wreckage. He decides to Europe to buy a used car (preferably a Mercedes Benz, due to its reliability) to take a road trip to Turkey to visit the gravesite of his friend/guru. Zabor is always writing in media res with the constant touchstone being the events of 1986, the year after both his parents died. By starts and fits he covers his family’s journeys from Poland to America, his mother’s long descent into angry senility, Zabor’s meandering road from childhood to adulthood and his ongoing quest for spiritual enlightenment. Zabor, incidentally, is also a jazz musician and music critic and it will come as no surprise that, although he somewhat downplays this aspect of his life, he tends to riff and improvise his way through the book in a charming fashion.
The first and strongest part of the book shares a similar tone and some subject matter with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart. Zabor’s humor is very amusing and relies heavily on a steady stream of self-deprecation as well as the invaluable contributions of a plethora of quirky friends, girlfriends, family members, and religious cult leaders (more on that later) -- a personal favorite being Uncle Avram, a stoic Old World sage who believes drinking two quarts of cold water at every meal has helped make him the strongest man who ever lived. New York City is also a big part of the ambience of the book, and Zabor’s homage to Brooklyn lingers lovingly, even when he heads to other states and countries. Zabor spends a lot of time reconstructing and describing his Jewish parents’ lives, especially his father’s life. This includes the many hardships, the escape from the pogroms, the eventual immigration to the United States and the making of their own modest version of the American Dream. Zabor worries away at his father’s life in a relentless yet ultimately affectionate manner. He uses everyday scenes from his days caring for his ailing parents to trigger flashbacks to various incidents further into the past. Like many of us, Zabor is puzzled by certain family dynamics and his parents’ relationship is the most complex conundrum. He dwells on the usual human questions of where did I come from and what the hell am I doing here anyway and in general tries to deal with what Zabor describes as being guilty “of an inexcusable ignorance of the realities of life."
The second half of the book focuses on the path to the meeting of Zabor’s aforementioned friend/guru. After an unsatisfactory experience hanging around with the usual groups of hippies who were attracted to Eastern religious traditions, Zabor ends up at a commune in England and he spends the rest of the book telling about his experience there -- both when he first arrived several years ago and when he returned for a visit on the way to Turkey. Under any circumstances, sharing a mystical experience has to be one of the most difficult things to do when constrained by the limits of language. Zabor makes admirable attempts, but what ends up happening is that the book’s humor is suddenly cut in half, leaving the reader deprived and then ultimately frustrated by the alternately mundane and esoteric details of life at the commune. The intriguing lead in of "and now I have to tell you how I joined a cult" is mostly a tease (at least in terms of how far this first volume takes us) although Zabor claims that he is taking us into “an underrecorded subculture” with “no lies allowed.” There are some interesting bits about whirling dervishes and other types of meditation, but many sections are bogged down in unexplained or unexplainable concepts and philosophy (some of which remain incomprehensible to even the initiated as Zabor freely admits). Zabor refers to Sufism and other spiritual philosophy throughout the first section of the memoir, however, these hints sans context are not enough to prepare you for the intense immersion of the second section.
As is the case with any group that has some sort of charismatic leader your average outsider often fails to grasp the appeal of the leader (especially when one of the gurus giggles frequently and makes vague remarks in an accent that can only be described as that of a stereotypical English fop). None of this is meant to cast aspersions on the authenticity of Zabor’s experience and one certainly grasps the serious intent behind such a quest. And yet, while he succeeds in bringing the reader into his everyday life history, his efforts to bring us into the core of his spiritual experience becomes one of those times when you simply shrug and say I guess you had to be there -- in spite of your nagging doubts that being there might not have helped that much after all.
I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir by Rafi Zabor
Farrar Straus & Girroux