PROFESSOR SCHIFF’S GUILT, by Agur Schiff. Translated by Jessica Cohen.
Near the end of “Professor Schiff’s Guilt,” by the Israeli novelist Agur Schiff, a special investigator of an unnamed African country disparages the very novel we are reading. “There are three elderly white men in your book,” the investigator tells the author’s stand-in — also a novelist and professor named Agur Schiff. All three men are well-off, the investigator says. All three fall in love with Black women who are “inferior, primitive and narrow-minded.” The resulting manuscript is “insulting,” he concludes.
It’s the kind of self-referential shtick a writer might use to fend off imagined critics. But flagging the underlying problems of a book doesn’t absolve a writer from meaningfully engaging with them. Weighty issues are everywhere in this novel: the legacy of slavery, labor migration, class, race and privilege. They often come up, though, in crude dialogue, implausible scenes or in rhetorical questions that take on the veneer of moral argument without the contorted novelistic work of making them come alive through believable characters. (“What’s wrong with being a migrant worker?” one well-heeled Tel Avivian asks her husband. “They’re taking jobs from people who live here,” he replies, predictably.)
Professor Schiff, who narrates parts of the novel, is a disgruntled writer in his 60s whose marriage has plateaued. One day he comes across a news article that mentions the discovery of a merchant ship owned by his “grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather,” a 19th-century slave trader named Klonimus Schiff. The narrator decides to embark on a journey to West Africa — to “a sad country, where people are always smiling” — to buy up what he can of the ship’s remnants.
The purchase (improbably, he is said to pay only several hundred dollars for the collection) gets him in trouble: He becomes the first defendant of a newly legislated “Law for Adjudicating Slave Traders and Their Accomplices, Heirs and Beneficiaries,” which is meant to deter people from profiting off slavery. During his trial, he is held under house arrest in a glorious villa, surrounded by mango trees, replete with a cook, a gardener and his own security detail. There, he holds a private audience with the investigator, who muses that prolonged migration has made Africa a “depleted, exploited, desolate place,” whose “inhabitants do not like it.”
Throughout, the tone — in Jessica Cohen’s excellent translation — remains detached, bemused, flippant, suggesting that Professor Schiff had somehow stumbled upon the events in question: a hapless klutz. But that doesn’t quite track with his seeming investment in his infamous ancestor’s past, or in the voyage itself, which he takes despite repeatedly telling the readers that he loathes travel of any kind. Those readers are the members of a special tribunal, whom he addresses in personal pleas, calling to mind Humbert Humbert’s appeals to “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” in “Lolita.”
We are meant to draw parallels between present-day Schiff and his forefather: Both are writers with no small dose of vanity who become infatuated with African women over whom they have total authority. Klominus Schiff is said to have fallen for a 14-year-old enslaved girl, and Professor Schiff is taken with a house cleaner who is passed over to him after a client fails to pay him for a screenplay. “The transaction, ludicrous and reprehensible as it may be, was agreeable to her,” we are breezily told.
Representing a transgressive personal politics in fiction is worthy — vital, even — so long as it serves a human truth. (Humbert Humbert is the peak of such a creation.) Yet Schiff the novelist seems more interested in shocking, not elucidating, in appearing contrarian rather than truthful. That’s a shame, because his novel is daring in both scope and imagination. Asked if he identifies with his ancestor, the narrator replies that it’s difficult for him to imagine how people lived then: “The biggest challenge is to try to reconstruct their emotional world.” Sadly, it’s a challenge the author himself has not met.
Ruth Margalit is a contributing writer for The Times Magazine.
PROFESSOR SCHIFF’S GUILT | By Agur Schiff | Translated by Jessica Cohen | 319 pp. | New Vessel Press | Paperback, $17.95