Dead Off: Hanoch Levin’s “Lives of the Dead” in English

Haim Watzman

    <em>Hanoch Levin by Yigal Tumarkin</em>
Hanoch Levin by Yigal Tumarkin (photo by Yair Talmor)
My friend Atar Hadari’s translation of Hanoch Levin’s anti-epic poem “Lives of the Dead” provides a fine opportunity for English readers to make an acquaintance with an important but very frustrating member of the modern Israeli literary pantheon.

Levin, who died ten years ago in middle age, made his major impact as a playwright and director, but was an accomplished poet as well. Like a number of other poets, critics, and writers of his generation—Meir Wieseltier and Yitzhak Laor come to mind—he was a rebel who began his career storming the castles of canon and tradition. But the edge of his sword was blunted because he came into his artistic prime in an era when flouting convention and toppling literary idols was fashionable and, in fact, the best road to success. So, paradoxically, he soon became part of the canon himself and found that the castles had turned into windmills.

He kept tilting at them anyway, displaying a great deal of flair in the process. But when I see a Levin play or read a Levin poem, I generally find myself much more impressed with the craft than the message. Levin’s major concern is the absurdity and depravity of life lived in the presence of death, and the futility of the beliefs, euphemisms, and obfuscations we use to avoid accepting death’s inevitability and its nullification of our selves. But having said that, he never found anything else to say. The point got belabored, and all the while a good chunk of his sense of humor remained in junior high school. Even though he died far too young, his death came after the dawn of a new era, one in which it became more radical and non-conventional (at least in literary circles) to talk about God and the spirit than to trash them.

The classical epic was an adventure written in a number of books or canticles, describing a heroic war or journey that generally included a visit to Hades. “Lives of the Dead” is about an anti-heroic journey to the underworld. A man dies unexpectedly and is buried. He’s underground. He considers how this changes his relationship with the woman he has shared his life with. He’s bummed that he can’t satisfy her sexually, and that the exchange of fluids between them has changed: now she flushes her toilet and her excrement heads to the ground where he lies. In Part II he decomposes and considers his inability to read the newspaper and engage in public affairs. In Part III, he seeks to reestablish a relationship with his dead father. In Part IV, he rots away and makes his final affirmation: “Hey, you up there, I was here too!”

If my summary sounds sarcastic, it’s fully in keeping with Levin’s tone in the poem. It’s meant to be read with a sardonic lilt in the voice, and to be taken a lot less seriously than most other poems of this length. There is no hope here, no saving grace; Levin stares Death in the eye, and spits.

Levin’s plays are consummate theater—he knew how to use the stage to turn story into myth. In its craft, “Lives of the Dead” is an impressive poem. The irony of the contrast of registers, between the seriousness of the language and the rudeness of the subject, is exquisite and painful. To hear the sonorous music of his language coupled with the black humor of his narrative is like attending a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in an amusement park.

But Levin’s dead man is a puerile one, obsessed with vaginas and excrement, and that tires after a while. Yes, deep down we’re all concerned with vaginas (or penises) and excrement, but what is really surprising and interesting about life (and death) is that we nevertheless think about other things and spend most of our time outside our bedrooms and toilets. Levin never gets that far. Part III, where Levin writes, from his unusual point of view, about his dead man’s longing to reconnect with his father, is sensitive and moving within the constraints of the terms that the poet sets, but the rest of the poem does not rise to this level.

Hadari’s rendering offers a good sense of the Hebrew. The awkward spots here and there are caused, for the most part, by the translator’s decision to use rhyme. In his notes to the translation, Hadari says that it was obvious to him that the translation would have to rhyme because the original poem rhymes. I found that a bit surprising because, in his volume of translations of Hayim Nachman Bialik’s poetry, he did not seek to produce rhymed English when Bialik wrote rhymed Hebrew. Still, I think it was the right decision in principle for “Lives of the Dead.” This is, after all, an epic, and the rhyme helps highlight the irony. The occasional stilted line might well be a necessary price to pay. We certainly shouldn’t make a fuss about it. In the long run, after all, we’re all dead.

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