On Daniel Katz

Issue 4/1980 | Archives online, Authors

Daniel Katz

Daniel Katz. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro/WSOY.

Daniel Katz (born 1938) is a member of Finland’s small Jewish community and the first Finnish writer to emerge from that background. The publication of his first book coincided roughly with the appearance in America of a wealth of Jewish literature. Katz has much in common with American Jewish writers, particularly in his parodies of conventional religious practices, but the Jewish community he writes about relates to the general social environment in a very different way. Writers like Philip Roth are concerned with a social group that is tightly hemmed in by its own claustrophobic boundaries, whereas Katz’s Jews, living alongside the reserved and at times withdrawn Finns, stand out as exceptionally extroverted and sociable beings; their Jewishness is not a fetter but their innate key to freedom.

Katz himself has been actively involved in the Jewish community; for a time he taught religious studies in the Helsinki Jewish Secondary School. He has also lived abroad and spent two years in Israel, but during the many different stages of his adult life he has found himself close to the radical left, and this has made his relationship with his Jewish origins somewhat ambivalent.

Katz published his first book, Kun isoisä Suomeen hiihti (‘When Grandfather skied to Finland’) in 1969. In this book he writes about his own people, lonely but determined, who were washed up on Finnish shores, part of the tidal wave of refugees from Eastern Europe. For these people it is an everyday reality to live on the brink of disaster, but they adapt to the situation with irony and resilience and, amazingly, without fear. And they do not retreat into a corner, they are not afraid to make contact with people, for they think it is possible to get on with other peoples and ways – the important thing is to stay alive.

‘My characters have nothing to do with reality, because none of them has existed in reality,’ Katz announces at the beginning of his first novel. In his next two novels Mikko Papirossin taivaallinen niskalenkki (‘Mikko Papirossi’s heavenly excursion’, 1972) and Orvar Kleinin kuolema (‘The death of Orvar Klein’, 1976) Katz’s world is, similarly, not based on reality. Orvar Klein writes in his diary that ‘details, the sense of time, cause and effect are confused in my mind and sometimes I am not even sure of my own identity.’ Orvar Klein is a mild man, the owner of a second-hand bookshop; but he finds himself at the mercy of his environment and also finds that he must change his identity as a victim of violence, politics and deception. The novel’s insight into the whims of misfortune is both concrete and undoubtedly justifiable historically, but although the world is a grotesque hurly-burly, Katz’s characters, clinging tenaciously to life, rise above it.

Katz’s intelligent humour and his wide-ranging imagination are still evident in his latest novel, Laturi (‘The explosives expert’, 1979), but at the same time there is a disturbing nightmare at the core. The hero, Enver Marameri was conceived in an internee camp and was born just before his mother was taken to a Nazi extermination camp. Selim, a Turk, gives the boy his name and looks after him in the safety of northern Finland. Enver’ s childhood companion has been a girl called Lale – but they may be brother and sister, in which case their love affair cannot be realised. The theme of the story rests on the threat of incest and the archetypal search for the father figure. In the excerpt below, Chapter 27 of the novel, Enver meets the former head of the internee camp and through him gains a vision of his father and his birthright.

The work is a Bildungsroman, a novel of pilgrimage, a love story, indeed, many things. The plot twists and turns, meandering absent-mindedly along like a folk tale, full of Balkan proverbs and the dance rhythms of a gypsy singer, with the severe Finnish landscape as a backdrop. It contains miracle stories and parodies of such tales: it is always unpredictable. Some episodes resemble the tales of Scheherazade, others are like Maxim Gorky’s youthful vagabond stories. Above all, the book is original: Katz has a broad and fertile mind that soars beyond normal literary conventions.

Enver Marameri takes more initiative than Katz’s previous picaresque heroes. Even as a small boy he knows how to ‘explode,’ if the occasion demands it: ‘He never burst into little bits, although it looked as if he would. His mouth would open into a yawning chasm, his eyes would explode into date shapes, his hair would stand on end, his hands would open and he would leap about a yard into the air, a powerful and shrill two-part scream bursting from his mouth.’ As Enver passes into adolescence he discovers other ways of ‘exploding’, which he can use for pleasure or destruction. It becomes an obsession. ‘The whole world has the same enthusiasm for explosives,’ Enver says to the psychiatrist who analyses him in hospital. ‘We are all sitting on a box full of gunpowder dynamite, T.N.T., atom bombs.’ Enver tries to come to terms with the ethics of explosives and for a short time finds himself in a militant rôle. He experiences severe disappointments in politics and love, and in the world itself where Justice and injustice have been hopelessly confused. He is finally freed from his attempts at suicide by a company of musicians and poets. These people, bards and minstrels like his father, representatives of the ancient tradition of troubadours, the tradition of the Romanian lautars, are for Enver the birthright his father has given him. His new companions fight evil with their songs, their tales, their shamanistic ways; Katz seems to be telling us that their methods are slower than the ‘explosive’ ones, but are surer and more lastingly effective.


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment