Maya Feldman On:
Ksantini, The Last Child of the Century by Sami Berdugo
“Ksantini, The Last Child of the Century” is my favorite story by Sami Berdugo. It’s a story of parting, beautiful, and melancholic, whose course intertwines with time, geography, landscape and body. The parting that is marked in the story is not only an actual move from the rural town to the big city, it is also a thematic transition that attempts to sum up a period in Berdugo’s writing and his subjects of interest, as it manifested throughout the collection of his stories published in 2011, that ends with this story, and called by its name.
A large damp stain appears on the wall in the apartment of the protagonist – an image of the writer (this stain on the wall alludes to a famous poem by David Avidan, Tel Aviv’s greatest poets, as if it demarcates the literary geography of the plot at the very start). This stain, which becomes larger and wider, threatening to bring the house down, has an odious smell and drives the protagonist to take action. “Sometimes,” Sami Berdugo once wrote, “I feel as if there is only one place, only one street. It seems as if the street corner of my childhood and adolescence has taken over all possible places that writing can reach and perhaps it even longs to do so.” As the story advances, the stain spreading throughout the apartment seems to be an expression of the feeling described – maybe the “stain of the past”, the stain of identity, or the burden of the past and of a nostalgia that becomes cloying, oppressive; the need to “get rid of it” is so difficult and deceiving that it eventually leads to paralysis. The narrator closes himself off in his apartment in the big city and dreams of his childhood landscape, of the good winter when “I could easily see the webbed veins of the leaves,” and the apartment transforms into a place of limbo, a perpetual present that won’t allow taking even one step forward.
The stains slowly spread and the narrator is forced to realize that “here in the city and the apartment, memory has no meaning,” and after being stripped of memory, of the identity formed in childhood and adolescence, what remains? The body, and from this mundane satisfaction the path is paved toward the inevitable, direct confrontation with the concrete: with the leaky water heater hiding in the storage area, making the apartment gradually decay. The protagonist has to call a professional, and here a visitor from the past invades the story: Ksantini, the last child of the century, the representative of the previous politics of identity: one of the two handymen standing at the door seems to be a child from his old neighborhood, to whom he gave private lessons when he was in high school. Suddenly, he feels “a fondness for his simple sentences” and that is strange, because the presence of the hard struggle to acquire a language, which is so characteristic of Berdugo’s previous stories, is missing in this story that might have been written by a writer who can’t and won’t continue writing his past. Now this struggle reappears in the shame (of the neglected apartment), in the longing – the narrator finds it hard to part with it, to let go, even though he realizes that the account has been settled, that the times are different times – “I knew that he [Ksantini] no longer needed me. He needed nothing from me.” The story ends with a revelation, with acceptance of the new time’s uncertainty: “And my desire to go to the needy Kasntinis, makes me fall into a new deception”. The decaying past has been removed from the apartment, but it hasn’t entirely disappeared from view: the old water heater still lurks in the stairwell, waiting for another Ksantini to come and take it away. The protagonists of Berdugo’s latest novel, which was published in 2014, are already wandering across the country.