Still Waiting for Godot

Marek Hlasko’s Israeli Grifters Embody Bleak World View

The Stranger: After escaping Poland, Hlasko lived for a time in Israel where his 1965 novel ‘Killing the Second Dog’ is set.
Courtesy of New Vessel Press
The Stranger: After escaping Poland, Hlasko lived for a time in Israel where his 1965 novel ‘Killing the Second Dog’ is set.

By Joshua Furst

Published May 07, 2014, issue of May 09, 2014.
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The con itself is a relatively simple bait and switch in which Jacob befriends lonely women vacationing in Israel, presenting himself as a violent but charming hard-luck case whose circumstances have forced him to act as he does. He reels these women in and gradually lets them see his hidden sensitivity, partly through his love for his dog. He leads them to believe that they can save him. He does all this through silence and intimation and spasmodic bouts of defensive deflection, letting the women project their romantic visions on him. Once they’ve fallen for him, he leads them to believe that the kindness they’ve shown him has led him into an existential quagmire, and that his shame over the ugly person he’s been weighs so heavily on him that he can’t forgive himself. Lashing out in the only way he knows how, he kills the thing he loves most in the world, the dog, and retreats into a catatonic despondency, leaving Robert to explain that he’d meant to kill himself and coax the women into giving him the money in a gesture of pity and sentimentality.

The bulk of the book consists of tracking the two men through a performance of this con. They’ve run it many times before but this time, Jacob doubts his abilities as an actor. As one of the secondary characters says about him, “He’s too old. He’s got the saddest kisser the world has seen since the death of that saint who used to sit on a pillar.” The work is beginning to take an emotional toll on him. Instead of faking his despair, he’s experiencing it. When he expresses his doubts to Robert, Robert is philosophical, if willfully obtuse, about them. “The principle you have to base your performance on is very simple,” he says. “If you’re locked up in a dark room, you become accustomed to the darkness after a while. But if someone keeps turning the light on and off, your suffering is unbearable, because each time you’ve got to get used to the light and darkness.”

By the end of the book, the distinction between the false sensitivity Jacob displays as part of his con and the true sensitivity he must deny in order to do the deeds required for his survival has been erased completely. Which, of course, is why he’s so masterful at performing the con. They get their money. They send the woman packing.

As Jacob steels himself for the next performance, he wonders over what’s left of his humanity: “Why haven’t I ever said or written that there is no greater misery than living without awareness of God, contrary to His commandments? I don’t know. And why haven’t I ever said that the worst sin is to betray the love of another human being? I don’t know. Maybe it was too hot for such profound statements, or maybe I’ve forgotten.”

The thought passes. He does what he has to do. He heads to Jaffa to buy a new dog and begin the tawdry show all over again.

The cycle of cruelty continues on, everyone unendingly trapped in his or her roles — a bleak vision befitting Hlasko’s experience of the world. He may not have had the answers Camus did for the moral problems afflicting our world. He may have been too caught up in his own emotions, his anger at women, at the totalitarian ruthlessness of his experience, to find the wisdom Beckett does in desolation. But he embodied his era’s crisis of faith.

Though Hlasko’s hard-boiled prose style and Gitane-scented philosophical machismo show their age, “Killing the Second Dog,” with its class-based nihilism and depiction of the itinerant loser’s sullen resentment, still has much to say. The ritualized cruelty in the book gives it the feel of a parable. His men aren’t just grifters and working-class joes grinding out their days. They’re pawns of a society (communist, capitalist, it matters not) constructed to flatter them with false images of themselves while it uses them for their labor and causes them pain. Their tragic flaw is their ability to feel. And knowing this does them no good at all.

Joshua Furst is a contributing editor of the Forward.


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