Ode to a brother lost

Too Late by Zvi Yanai

Steve Caplan 2 June 2014

Serengeti tale: a scientist's life imagined

No one could have made up the circumstances behind this novel – they wouldn’t have been believable

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.

I enjoy listening to audiobooks on the way to work every day, and consider it a privilege to have such a great selection available from Omaha’s superb public library system. But my wife, who prefers to read and listen in Hebrew whenever possible, recently handed me a Hebrew audiobook sent from Israel and said, “You have to listen to this.”

I listened to her (as I have been trained!), and I listened to the audiobook. I was utterly captivated by this highly unusual and moving novel in many ways, not the least of which was my discovery that it belongs to our beloved ‘lab lit’ genre! The first documented Hebrew lab lit novel, in fact!

Entitled Too Late (my translation from the Hebrew, as the book has unfortunately not been translated into English – although it has into Italian), this novel is the astonishing creation of the late Zvi Yanai.

Yanai was a writer, philosopher, journalist, influential magazine editor and supporter of all-things-science. Despite being largely self-educated, he became the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, a post that he diligently fulfilled for nearly a quarter of a century. He was also committed to seeing Israel succeed as a liberal, pluralistic, democratic and peace-seeking state. Remarkably, even this amazing career path pales in comparison with the story of his childhood and personal life – outlined in his two books Yours, Sandro and Too Late”.

Although both books are related, the former is essentially non-fiction, and tells the actual story of Yanai’s childhood (he was born Sandro Toth, in Italy) as revealed in a letter he wrote to a brother he never met – who was abandoned in Italy by their mother just before World War II. Too Late, on the other hand, is Yanai’s fascinating experiment in imagining the thoughts, feelings and life of his brother – a scientist and professor of ecology who disappeared mysteriously in the Serengeti in Tanzania (never to be found) – sometime after reading his own long-lost brother’s first book, Yours, Sandro

Complicated? Indeed. Please bear with me, and I will try to simplify this surreal story.

Yanai was the son of a Jewish Hungarian ballerina from Austria and a Christian singer father from Hungary (hence the Hungarian name). His father left the picture after four children were born (Yanai was the youngest) and his mother struggled in Italy during the war. She died when Yanai was very young, and he was brought up as a Catholic orphan and was set to enter the priesthood. He and his sisters were somehow brought to Palestine/Israel after the war by an uncle who lived there. But his brother, Romulo, was given to an Italian woman who kept orphans among her own children – while his mother was still alive. He, too, nearly entered the priesthood, but ended up marrying, siring a daughter (Umberta) and becoming a renowned Italian professor in plant ecology at the University of Rome.

Too late is the tragic story of Romulo and his life, from childhood until his disappearance in the Serengeti following a prolonged battle with cancer. It is not an easy read, nor a fun one, given that although this second novel is fiction, it is based on a terribly sad story. Sad, because the brothers never met, even after Romulo received Yanai’s first book Yours, Sandro – essentially a novel telling their family history. But Too Late is also a tragedy on a personal scale. Romulo deemed himself a failure at personal relations and lived a lonely existence. His wife never understood his desire to be an artist – his passion. This ultimately led to their divorce and a rift between Romulo and Umberta, with whom he had hoped to share his personal and childhood experiences.

Yanai paints a picture of a cerebral and scientifically successful researcher who is essentially lonely and cannot come to terms with being abandoned by his mother. He yearns for intimacy, first from his wife, and then from his daughter, but never attains it. All of this comes to the reader through a series of letters that Yanai draws up between Romulo’s daughter, Umberta, a Tanzanian research assistant who worked in the field with the declining Romulo in the Serengeti prior to his mysterious disappearance, and a British field researcher and expert in lions who tracks Romulo’s last traces in the reserve. The novel culminates in the retrieval of his journal, a sweeping personal story of his childhood and desire to fit in with his carefree adopted siblings, his philosophical reveries, his almost detached descriptions and musings on his chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant and fight for his life. And finally, we are given incredible biological descriptions of his work in the Serengeti, as he is called to survey the invasion of the Mexican poppy into the reserve and address what impact it might have on the long and short grasses of the African savannah.

With incredible knowledge and accuracy, Yanai (who was never a biologist) interweaves complex genetic and ecological terms into the story. An example is transposons (genes that can ‘jump’ from the genome one species to another). The descriptions are suitable for a layman, but are not dumbed down, so a non-expert will at least need to pay attention to benefit from these sections. But they are told from the perspective of Romulo in such a way that they reflect on his character, and in turn, make up an essential part of Yanai’s story.

Since I doubt many lab lit readers will be reading this novel (or listening to it in Hebrew), I feel no guilt at revealing the following spoilers. Fearing the end of his remission will cause him to be hospitalized and undergo additional chemotherapy, the aging Romulo accepts an offer to come to the Serengeti and assess the potential damage of the invasive Mexican poppy. Living with his responsible African research assistant (who is unaware of Romulo’s failing health) in a small isolated cabin, Romulo prepares for the end. He recalls his childhood in his journal, and reflects on his Israeli brother to whom he never responded after publication of Yours, Sandro.

Yanai skillfully mingles the past with the present and describes Romulo’s attempt to rear a young lion cub that he found dehydrated and near death outside their humble dwelling. Romulo nurses and feeds the lion, until the unexpected appearance of the cub’s mother near the dwelling. The lion’s abandonment and his own childhood mirror each other, and upon the advice of the British lion expert, Romulo regretfully releases the cub to the mother and the wild – where the lion researcher subsequently reports – both are killed trying to reenter a group.

As the disease silently reemerges, Romulo considers his life, his regrets and failures – first and foremost with his daughter – and his impending death. And one night he disappears forever deep into the savannah.

This is a tremendous fictionalized version of a tragic but fascinating story – reiterating how fact is often stranger than fiction. No one could have made up the circumstances behind this novel – they wouldn’t have been believable. Yanai has managed to create a tragic hero and enlighten readers with his philosophical musings and knowledgeable (but approachable) scientific discourse.

How alike were Romulo and Yanai? This is anyone’s guess, but my vote is that they were both impacted heavily by a similar childhood. This is a novel that I would recommend to all, if only it were in English. And I am grappling with the notion of taking on an English translation.

Would anyone be interested in reading it?