by Rafi Zabor; New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005, 472 pages, $26
Dr. Tabor is medical director of the adult inpatient service at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York, and assistant professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center.
The memoir I, Wabenzi takes the reader on a wild ride. Its author, Rafi Zabor, née Joel Zaborowsky, takes us from Brooklyn to Woodstock, Turkey, England, Israel, Germany, California—and these travels do not begin to approach the travels the author has taken in his mind. The author, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, reinvents himself through seeking and finding charismatic teachers from the Sufi branch of Islam, and by telling his tales he weaves threads into a complex and colorful tapestry. There are flights from family, reality, and perhaps sanity. Zabor can clang with the best of manics and invent words as pithy as any neologism. Is he crazy? Who cares? He escorts—nay, kidnaps—the reader for one wild magic carpet ride. Not long into the book, the reader becomes a willing accomplice, enjoying the contact high.
The book is in essence a bildungsroman, the story of a young man's struggle to define himself. His mother is mentally ill, and one might say abusive—although the author would disagree. Yet his attachments to family, to Brooklyn, and to heritage never break, and he even refers to himself as the "too symbiotic son." He manages to integrate all that into his struggles and journeys and even finds that a member of the commune he visits in England is the brother of an old girlfriend, himself also much transformed. One of Zabor's struggles is with writer's block, and this rather weighty book is evidence that he has overcome it.
The book reminded me of John Fowles' The Magus (1), in which the protagonist also takes a journey in which he learns the meaning of Eliot's (2) lines
"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
This excerpt could be the summary comment for I, Wabenzi as well. Zabor never rejects his past, exactly, nor does he return exactly to where he started. Instead, he manages to integrate his memories, traumas and experiences into a new whole: son, friend, author, mystic, Sufi, Jew, observer, participant.
What is a Wabenzi, by the way? It's simply a person who owns a Mercedes, conjugated from the African. For more, read on.
Fowles J: The Magus. New York, Dell, 1978
Eliot TS: The Four Quartets. Available at www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets