Some time ago Rafi Zabor sat down to write a brief narrative of the year 1986. That was the year he set out across two continents in a used Mercedes--"Wabenzi" is the Swahili word for a member of the Mercedes-owning class--to buy a grave stone for his friend Mahmoud Rauf and to outrun the shadow of his own parents' recent death.
But like a boat against the current, the writer was drawn back into the past: his father's escape from the Nazis, Rafi's own Brooklyn boyhood surrounded by the fractious, Zabors and Zaborovskys, and the anguished--sometimes farcical--spiritual journey that led Zabor from Brooklyn to Turkey by way of Coltrane, the thirteenth-century mystic Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, the McGovern campaign, Gurdjieff, a shoe salesman named Gogol, and the cataclysmic months Zabor spent studying (and whirling) amid a band of Sufis in rural England. The result--the first of a projected four volumes--is one of the most original, capacious, and vivid narratives of the last few decades, a real-life Bildungsroman dealing with an expanded range of human experience, from matters of life and death to a piece of what lies beyond them.
Straight from the unchartered territory between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Tristram Shandy, I, Wabenzi lifts a corner of the known world as if it were the edge of a curtain, and begins to show a reality new to our literature gleaming on the other side.
One third On the Road, one third Remembrance of Things Past, one third Sufi mysticism, this dense, heady memoir, the first in a projected four-volume set, tracks the years Zabor spent getting involved with a spiritual commune in the '70s and caring for his dying parents in the 1980s. The narrative is rich, allusive and only loosely chronological; it often skips among the events of several decades within a single chapter. But for fans of Zabor's PEN/Faulkner Award winning novel, The Bear Comes Home, such intricacies will be part of the book's attraction. A jazz drummer and music critic, Zabor has a great feel for the rhythms and melodies of language, but it is his skill at portraiture that will really lure readers. His descriptions of his father, a Polish Jew who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1938 and stayed in an unhappy marriage in order to be close to his son, are particularly evocative. And his account of his mother's descent into angry senility would be despairing if it weren't so often leavened with humor. The book's few dull moments occur when the author appears alone, with no person upon whom to play his riffs and observations. Religion, or rather the self-conscious struggle to connect earthly experience with the divine, also colors a large part of the book, particularly toward the end. But if Zabor is a mystic, given to visions and dreams, his memoir is nevertheless grounded in the joys, sorrows and many little vanities of ordinary life.