It seems less relevant these days to distinguish between novels and memoirs—especially memoirs with ardent, self-deprecating narrators who gain a springboard for their storytelling by insisting, redundantly, that you suspend your disbelief. Rafi Zabor, whose novel The Bear Comes Home won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998, is such a narrator, and his brashness extends to the scale of I, Wabenzi, a nearly 500-page first installment in a projected multi-volume work. It presents Zabor’s predicament in 1986, when he was 40. Having spent three years caring for his parents during their terminal illnesses, he now plans a European road trip to “haul my mortal self back among the living.”
In the first half of I, Wabenzi, it hardly matters that Zabor keeps delaying the journey with narrative tangents and sub- tangents, recounting his father’s flight from pre-war Poland, his family’s emotional politics (decidedly fascist), and his parents’ deaths. Zabor’s prose rattles along, yanking laughs out of tragedy, capping broad comedy with pathos, and tracing exaggerated but believable portraits of relatives. He is especially skilled at bringing the reader inside his parents’ marriage, which was burdened by his mother and her more prosperous sister and brother-in-law’s “general disapproval of my father’s accent, emotionalism, absentmindedness, peasant manners and utter lack of interest or taste in clothes or home furnishings.” Zabor grows up absorbing their disdain, assuming his dad to be a bumpkin—only to learn later why Zabor Sr. tolerated each insult. Suddenly comprehending his father’s sacrifices, Zabor stares at the now sickly old man across the kitchen table, “and he looked back at me, the shape of his life changing massively behind him: he was becoming gigantic again in my eyes.”
These stories turn out to be better than those that lard the book’s second half, about Zabor’s youthful travails, including a 170-page flashback to his year with a Sufi sect. Compared with his clan and its ineluctable mortality, Zabor’s adult life and friendships taste like mere water after wine. In the section dealing with Zabor’s sojourn at Beshara, the Sufi colony, he whips up frothy transcendentalisms and dwells on mundane incidentals. It seems he never got close to anyone there, so bodies file in and out of the chapters but no real characters emerge. Most tellingly, Zabor came to this place to “wash away the blood and slime” of a girlfriend’s second-term abortion, but we never learn her fate and know little of their relationship—an absence of empathy that seems off after Zabor’s elaborately multi-faceted family chronicles.
Of course, future volumes may rectify the omissions. So far, Zabor’s stylistic close calls offer the greatest satisfaction: The memoir is best when he lets his prose careen into cartoon and veer back into realism at the last moment.
Rafi Zabor reads at McNally-Robinson Booksellers November 9.