When two linguistic cultures so contrasting in content like the eloquent whisperings of the Kabbala and the almost wordless communication of Zen Buddhism collide with each other, the usual order is shaken by those divergent forces, as is the case in Hoffmann’s prose. It is thanks to the ideas and flashes of inspiration between the stages of a biography tragically marked at the beginning and later with greater calmness, that Hoffmann, with the late literary debut of ‘Katschen & The book of Joseph’ (1998) has taken up a special place in Hebrew avant-garde literature.
Born in Hungary in 1938, Yoel Hoffmann fled the terror of the Nazis with his parents when he was one year old, to Palestine. It is there that his mother died. He grew up in an orphanage until his father re-married. A feeling of deep alienation overcame him, similar to which is found years later in the figures of his novels. But before this, as a young man, he left his barely new hometown, this time of his own free will, to go to new foreign places, to Japan, where he studied Philosophy of Religion and lived for two years in a Zen monastery. The experiences of this time influenced not only his prose but also prompted him to translate Japanese poetry. They also characterize his teaching work at Haifa University, where, as professor of Philosophy and East Asian Religious Studies, he commits himself to bringing about a dialogue between Western and Asian thought. Also from here, themes flow into his literature and his work is always marked with philosophical questions concerning certainties, justified hope and correct action through laconism of absurd thought and irrational characters.
This is also the case in Hoffmann’s second novel ‘Bernhardt’ (1998) in which a lonely immigrant, a German Jew in British Palestine, mourns his dead wife. He leaves the house in which they once lived together and wanders aimlessly around coffee-houses, cinemas and friends while the Second World War is breaking out.
And so the narrative structure of the novel genre is further undone in his books. Whereas his debut ‘Katschen & The book of Joseph’, which describes the wanderings of a Russian Jew in Berlin, digresses, ‘Bernhardt’ is made up of miniature-like ‘chapters’. He develops this method in ‘The Christ of Fish’ (1995) and his novel ‘The Heart is Katmandu’ (2001).
Yoel Hoffmann was awarded with, amongst other, the ‘Jewish Book Award’ of the Koret Foundation and the ‘Bialik Prize’ of the city of Tel Aviv and his works have been translated into many languages. Today he lives in Galilee.
© international literature festival berlin