An aging Israeli professor travels to a West African country to trace an ancestor who was a slave trader, only to be detained under a new law barring successive generations from profiting off the proceeds of slavery.
In Tel Aviv, just before departing, the professor falls in love with Lucile, an African illegal migrant whom he employs as his house-cleaner…
Funny and thought-provoking, this satire of contemporary attitudes toward racism and the legacy of colonialism examines economic inequality and the global refugee crisis, as well as the history of transatlantic slave-trade and the Holocaust.
Is the professor’s affection for Africa just a fashionable pretence, and is the book he’s writing about his experience there nothing but a modern version of Colonial exploitation?
Excerpt from Professor Schiff’s Guilt
Yes, it’s true: my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was a slave trader.
I cannot deny it. Nor do I see any point in obscuring this embarrassing fact. After all, I feel no affinity with the man, who departed this world almost a century and a half before I entered it. And I trust you will believe me when I say that our genetic linkage arouses more than a shred of discomfort in me.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are those who claim that the past always makes surprise appearances. Indeed, that is sometimes true. Except that what we have here is not a long-forgotten parking ticket that crops up out of nowhere and, if not paid—with interest, of course—might result in your bank account being seized. Nor are we dealing with an old woman who stops you on the street to remind you that she was the girl you were once madly in love with. No. The past I am being asked to submit to you, distinguished members of the Special Tribunal, is my family heritage, for good and for bad, and when it rears its head, I cannot pretend to be surprised.
Because I have known for years about my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Klonimus Zelig Schiff. About his business affairs, the fortune he amassed, and his mysterious disappearance. I have read about him. I have written about him. I have dreamed about him. I even know what he looked like.
In a portrait that hangs in the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo, he stands upright and rigid, wearing a tricorn and a stern expression. He is flanked by his wife Esperanza, her head covered with a snood, and although she is not beautiful, she certainly is—how can I put this?—charismatic. In the background, a ship with billowing sails glides across a flat, gray sea that glistens like a sheet of zinc.
Naturally, almost instinctively, one seeks out the resemblance. It’s a bit like searching a baby’s face for the parents’ features. And when one persists, one always finds something. A certain glint in the eye. An angle. A contour. Generally speaking, though, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps you will agree that a face is an asset we tend to overvalue. Particularly if we take into account how quickly it withers and loses its capacity to do justice to its owner.
Then again, why should anyone care what the slave trader who was my great-great-great-great-grandfather looked like? As far as I’m concerned, you are entitled to think that Professor Schiff—namely, I—am him, as long as you can maintain your judicial objectivity. Not that I doubt your integrity, distinguished members of the tribunal. Not at all. I trust you unequivocally.
“Liberal hypocrisy is furiously implicated in Israeli writer Agur Schiff’s ‘Professor Schiff’s Guilt’ . . . He also portrays a more concrete inheritance of racism, mostly in the presence of undocumented African workers in Israel . . . This shrewd masquerade has real bite.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A writer contends with slavery’s legacy, and his own link to it . . . Daring in both scope and imagination.”
The New York Times
“A daring post-colonial satire about a professor who inadvertently gets wrapped up in human trafficking in modern-day Tel Aviv . . . The author takes a clear-eyed view of the horrors of slavery and its present-day consequences . . . It’s a blistering skewering, and as sharp as it is funny.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“In this very funny, wise, and rueful novel, the cranky hero thrashes around in the coils of guilt, atonement, desire, and shame once he learns that a distant relative was a slave trader. (There’s other bad stuff, not nearly so distant.) But really, he’s no more culpable than we all are—and no less.”
James Traub, author of Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy and Foreign Policy magazine columnist
“This provocative novel raises urgent questions about family legacy, human trafficking, atonement and memory. Full of unexpected twists and humor.”
“An aging Israeli academic reckons with his family’s crimes—and his own . . . with how—and if—the people of the present can atone for the unresolved horrors of the past . . . Professor Schiff’s Guilt is an incisive novel in which deep-rooted prejudices lurk behind good intentions and pleasant words.”
“Deftly raises important contemporary issues—including how accountable should we be for the sins of our ancestors—without losing sight of the comedy that lies at the heart of tragedy.”
Wayne Grady, author of Emancipation Day and Up From Freedom
“Not only a hilarious satirical novel full of self-deprecation, but also a topical and very relevant book, which cleverly ridicules the self-righteous and should finally place its author alongside the most prominent writers.”
“One of the most thrilling and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in the past year . . . Schiff writes with simplicity, full of charm and humor.”
“A wonderful and brilliant book . . . a very entertaining book, rich with imagination and literary innovations.”