The protagonist of this novel does not deny that his “grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was a slave trader.” Professor Schiff admits this freely to the members of the Special Tribunal convened in a fictitious African nation to judge whether he is guilty under the newly legislated Law for Adjudicating Slave Traders and their Accomplices, Heirs, and Beneficiaries. Schiff is the “first person officially suspected of committing crimes” under this law. He has no doubts that the tribunal will maintain its judicial objectivity and trusts it to judge him fairly.
In the novel Professor Schiff’s Guilt by Agur Schiff, translated by Jessica Cohen (New Vessel Press, May 2023), the 63-year-old professor first learns about this small African coastal country after reading a marginal item in a newspaper detailing the discovery of the remnants of a nineteenth-century merchant ship. The Esperanza was once owned by his ancestor, Klonimus Zelig Schiff. The professor saw in his family’s connection to that ship and its role in the African slave trade, the subject of his next book.
But the professor’s road to Africa began even before he read that newspaper article. When he fails to collect a debt from a dubious attorney at home in Tel Aviv, he is offered instead the services of Mrs. Lucile Tetteh-Ofosu, an African migrant worker, as a personal assistant. “Are you offering me a human being instead of the money you and your friends owe me?” he asks incredulously. Signing a legal document entitles Schiff to “make any use of Lucile as he shall deem desirable in his sole discretion,” in effect making her his modern-day slave.
These two plotlines play out in parallel—the professor on trial for his slave-trading ancestor’s misdeeds, and his fascination with the mysterious African woman who he employs to clean his house. The African official assigned to Schiff’s case declares him a racist, claiming that his testimonies and writings show that he considers Africans to be inferior. Is the professor guilty of this charge, or is he honest in his claim that he loves the African nation, its people and its culture?
“You love us just as a master loves his slave,” the investigator tells him.
This well-written and compelling satirical novel makes us question how our colonial ancestors related to the African continent and how Israelis today relate to the migrant workers we employ in minimum-wage menial jobs on the streets of Tel Aviv. In this, maybe we share the professor’s guilt.
Agur Schiff has worked as a filmmaker, started writing fiction in the early 1990s, and has published two short story collections and six novels. Professor emeritus at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, he has been awarded the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize.
Jessica Cohen translates contemporary Israeli prose, poetry, and other creative work. She shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with David Grossman, for her translation of A Horse Walks into a Bar, and has translated works by major Israeli writers, including Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, Ronit Matalon and Nir Baram.