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The Wizardry Of Amos Oz
Book Review

The Wizardry Of Amos Oz

In his latest meticulously crafted novel, Israel’s most famous living writer evokes a profound existential unease.

Amos Oz
Amos Oz

In Amos Oz’s new novel, or more accurately novel-in-short-stories, the sense of dread, of profound existential unease, is unmistakable. No character in Oz’s fictional Israeli village, Tel Ilan, where all the stories in “Scenes from Village Life” are set, is happy. No one is even remotely content with his lot.

Arieh Zelnik is disgusted with the developer who’s trying to buy his mother’s home, one that’s been in the family for generations. Gili Steiner, a single childless doctor, grows increasingly panicked when her nephew, supposedly on his way for a visit, never shows up. In the story titled “Digging,” a retired Knesset member and his daughter’s handyman, a young Arab student, are convinced they hear drilling beneath their home, threatening to undermine its foundation.

What has made Oz, 72, one of Israel’s most revered authors and a perennial Nobel Prize favorite, is the way he fuses intimate family stories to issues central to Israel’s identity. Yet, he consistently rejects the notion that his stories are political.

“It would be a mistake to read ‘Scenes from Village Life’ as a statement about the state of Israel,” Oz said in an interview at the offices of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, his American publisher. “It should be read as a statement on the human condition. … This is a book about love and loss and loneliness,” he said, “about death and desolation.”

But many see that position — one he states repeatedly, and has been stating for years — as not quite sincere. His fiction may not be fundamentally about politics. But it’s so tethered to Israeli life that it becomes impossible not to see it as an oblique commentary on his society.

“It’s true that there’s a divide between his politics and his novels,” said Avraham Balaban, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Florida who has written extensively on Oz’s work. “But what makes him such a popular writer in Israel is that he never forgets the panoramic view, about Jewish history, about Israel.”

Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz posses 26 February 2007 in Arad in southern Israel. Getty Images

Over the last decade, much of Oz’s writing has reflected an acute sense of loss. His previous novel, “Rhyming Life and Death,” (2009) focused on a successful, but bored and disillusioned, aging writer. And his wildly popular memoir from 2004, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” centered on the suicide of his mother when she was 38 and he was just 12.

The memoir was set against the backdrop of the State of Israel’s establishment, a euphoric moment for the Jerusalem-born Oz, who was 9 years old at the time. And it was especially significant for his parents, both ardent Zionists who had escaped Europe in the 1930s.

Still, over the years, Oz’s enthusiasm for Zionism has been tempered. He still calls himself a Zionist, if an outspoken liberal one. But his romantic nationalism began to fade as Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories became more entrenched.

Oz helped found the liberal Israeli group, Peace Now, four decades ago. But among some post-Zionist liberals today, he’s often criticized for being too conservative. Whereas his critics might question the need for Israel to remain an exclusively “Jewish state,” Oz sees it as utterly essential. He believes strongly that Jews have a right to their own state; and that Palestinians do, too.

“There’s no enthusiasm for compromise because, by definition, compromise is sad and painful,” Oz said. The lack of enthusiasm for a two-state peace deal these days, he added, does not mean that both Israelis and Palestinians are not ready to accept it.

“The majority of Palestinians and also Israelis are ready for a two-state solution. The problem is still a lack of political leadership,” he said, echoing a sentiment he’s been making for several years now. “If I may use a metaphor: the patient is ready, but the doctors are cowards.”

Oz can insist that his fiction is apolitical in part because he makes his political views abundantly clear. He writes opinion pieces regularly for Israeli newspapers, often lambasting Israel’s leadership. “When I want to make a political statement, I don’t write a story,” he said. “I write an angry article. I’ll write directly to the government and tell them all to go to hell.”

Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz posses 26 February 2007 at his home in Arad in southern Israel. Getty Images

But he can sing praises, too. Few events in Israel have made him prouder than the recent street protests among Israelis. Since the summer, thousands of Israelis across the ideological spectrum have been protesting their government for what they view as crony capitalism. “They were saying, ‘We are brethren,’” Oz said, “This was something I was waiting for. It was a wonderful renewal of a sense of solidarity in Israel.”

It is that kind of solidarity — or rather, the sense that it’s missing — that finds unique expression throughout his new novel. The steady disintegration of Tel Ilan is the thread tying all the disparate stories together. Settled by hardy pioneers before Israel’s establishment, the village is increasingly becoming just another luxury resort.

“For some years now,” Oz writes in one story, “wealthy city people had been buying up old single-story houses in Tel Ilan, razing them to the ground and replacing them with larger villas adorned with cornices and awnings. Soon, Gili Steiner” — the childless doctor — “thought to herself, Tel Ilan would stop being a village and become a holiday resort for the wealthy.”

When the novel turns to the Arab student, Adel, in “Digging,” the central metaphor — a mysterious drilling beneath a house’s foundation — is hard to miss. The retired politician, Pesach Kedem, is the first to hear it. But then, as he confronts Adel, whom Kedem makes no secret of disliking — “You can see right away,” he says of Adel, “that he hates us but hides his hatred under a layer of sycophancy” — Adel begins to hear the noise, too. An unresolved conflict, the story suggests, unsettles the whole village.

When asked about these clear political allusions, Oz responded: “The stories are set against an Israeli background, so naturally my observations about the country are in it. But essentially, it’s about the human condition rather than the Israeli reality.”

A few of the stories in “Scenes from Village Life,” translated by Nicholas de Lange, have already appeared in The New Yorker. The magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, said that Oz’s stories can be read in multiple ways.

“The beauty of Oz’s fiction,” Treisman wrote in an e-mail, “is that you can read it through so many different lenses — political, historical, religious, allegorical, autobiographical, and so on — or you can just allow the language to flow through you and the meaning to rise from that flow.”

Oz’s writing has often been marked by a certain sadness, where even triumphs are attended by tragedy. But usually there is a quiet dignity that wards off a total sense despair. Not so in “Scenes from Village Life,” which includes a haunting story that might have well come from the mind of Dante, or Hieronymus Bosch.

It takes place, ostensibly, in Tel Ilan, though as if were transformed into a fetid and ghoulish swamp. “A sweet smell of decay spreads among our huts. Iron rusts here overnight,” the story begins. “I was sent here twenty or twenty-five years ago by the Office of Underdeveloped Regions,” the narrator continues, “and I still go every evening to spray the swamp with disinfectant.”

If this were Oz’s finale, few would be ungrateful. Reviews in England and Israel have already been strong, and the stories are nothing if not impeccably crafted — dark, but undoubtedly elegant. Yet Oz says that, though his hair has turned white and his gait has slowed, this will not be his last.

“I still have a couple of novels in me,” he said. But don’t worry, he continued, the next generation of writers holds promise. “I think that Israel is bursting with literary creators,” he said. “There’s definitely a literary spring in Israel.”

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