The Arty Semite

The Joys of Amos Oz at 75

By Liam Hoare

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In Amos Oz’s “Rhyming Life and Death” it’s a sticky night in Tel Aviv, and the Author is to give a reading. Surveying the room, he begins to fashion life stories for the people attending. He takes note of a boy of about 16, moving restlessly in his chair. “He looks unhappy,” the Author thinks. The torments of his age “have etched a tearful look on his face.” The Author imagines him as a budding poet named Yuval Dahan, “but when he timidly sends his first poems to a literary editor he will sign himself Yuval Dotan”:

Through his pebble lenses he loves this Author de profundis, secretly and passionately: my suffering is your suffering, your soul is my soul, you are the only one who can understand, for I am the soul that pines in solitude among the pages of your books.

This feeling Yuval Dahan has — that the Author is speaking directly to him, that he has him in mind — is an illusion and to that extent irrational. Yet it is a recognizable one. In the process of trying on various writers, for me Amos Oz — who turns 75 on May 4 — was the suit that fit. His narrative voice — in turns precise and lyrical, never wasteful, always insightful — remains the one that speaks back to me, that feels familiar, that feels right.

The first time I read a novel by Amos Oz, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, one of a number of kibbutzim founded on the upland between Haifa and Hadera. The kibbutz had a library divided between Hebrew and English, with the English section open some afternoons, dependent upon the kibbutznik responsible turning up on her bicycle. Oftentimes, it would open and close without much notice.

On a break from a shift in the one the factories, I borrowed “To Know a Woman,” reading it in fragments during the pauses in the industrial process. I do not remember whether it was after one page, or one chapter, or the book as a whole, but I remember thinking that my relationship with Oz could not end by me returning the novel. So, I borrowed “Black Box,” then “A Perfect Peace,” and on a weekend away from the kibbutz bought a second-hand copy of “My Michael” from a store in Jerusalem.

What unifies and distinguishes his novels as a body of work is his examination of the suffering, searching, conflicted Israeli soul. Oz’s characters continue to wander, as if this is an inescapable condition even after the advent of Zionism. Or, because Israel was born out of a dream, it will always have an air of disappointment about it, and its inhabitants will always be disappointed too, in search of perfection, of utopia.

In “A Perfect Peace,” through the dynamic between Yonatan Lifshitz and his father, kibbutz secretary Yolek, Oz not only shows the generational conflict between founders and sons but also the tortured spirit living in an idealistic human experiment. Yonatan loves the kibbutz — the “sound of a recorder from the children’s house” as it mingles with the cries of birds and the “fragrance of evening as it slowly descended in the last days of summer over the newly mowed lawn” — and yet his commitment to its ethos has withered away. His soul yearns for something more, even if he isn’t quite sure what:

All through his childhood and adolescence, and for all his years in the army, he had been hemmed in by a tight little circle of men and women who had been interfering every step of the way. He had begun to feel they were keeping him from something and that he mustn’t let them do it any more … If while taking an afternoon ramble by the burned-out cypress trees at the far end of the kibbutz, he should run into someone who asked what he was doing there, he would say, as if loath to reply, “Oh, I’m just walking around.” Yet a moment later he would ask himself, “What am I doing here?”

These feelings of longing and unease remains a theme in his most recent works, as the mood has evolved towards contemplation, retrospection, even melancholia. “Scenes From Village Life” sees restless, perturbed characters moving around a village older than the state’s founding, all in search of something they cannot remember having forgotten. “Between Friends,” which returns Oz to the kibbutz, examines the isolated, lonely and frustrated soul in the most communal and intense of environments:

Carefully gathering the crumbs from the tablecloth, Luna said, “You must have been a very shy young man. You’re still a bit shy now.”

Zvi said, “You don’t really know me.”

Luna said, “Tell me. I’m listening.”

And Zvi said, “Tonight I heard on the radio that a volcano erupted in Chile. Four villages were totally destroyed by the lava flow. Most of the people didn’t stand a chance.”

It is not only Israel’s human qualities that Oz captures so marvellously. From the opening page of his first book, “Where the Jackals Howl” — in which a dense khamsin suffocating the kibbutz is pierced by a blast of wind from the sea — it was clear that nature and landscape would play an essential role in his fiction. Israel’s environment anchors his work, sometimes colouring it, other times enveloping it –– a land where every jackal’s howl is a warning and the cypress tress “sway to and fro in wordless devotion.”

There is an interaction between man and nature, between the land and people of Israel. “If you stop talking sometimes maybe things will sometimes be able to talk to you,” the Narrator remembers an old teacher of his saying once in “The Same Sea.” “A spectacular difference she promised, between stones and trees, to anyone who is prepared to listen.” In Oz’s novels, Israel speaks to its people, it moves through them, as if, as shown in “Don’t Call It Night,” the two are inseparable:

Looking at hills through the glazed balcony door and across the stone wall at the end of the garden, he feels a sense of gratitude, but for what he is not sure. Could he really be grateful to the hills? … He finds the calm connections between the desert and the darkness satisfying. … The desert seems right to him and the moonlight justified. In the window opposite, two or three stars glow sharply over the hills. Softly he declares: Now you can breathe.

Perhaps, then, the definitive quality of Amos Oz’s novels is their sheer Israeliness, their place, wisdom, and parochialism. The joy of reading Amos Oz is the sensation of having the curtains pulled back to examine something of Israeli society that you hadn’t noticed before. “Once in a while it is worth turning on the light to clarify what is going on,” he writes in “Rhyming Life and Death.” Indeed, to read Amos Oz is to come to know Israel a little better.

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