by Amos Oz
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 179 p.
After a lifetime of international acclaim for your writing, what do you do? Do you “retire?” like Philip Roth, or do you simply rest on your laurels and enjoy your accomplishment? Both sound pretty great, and you couldn’t begrudge anyone for choosing either. But Amos Oz continues to churn out important and impressive work that serve as a sort of State of the Union on the Israeli soul and Jewish culture. At 74, Oz publishes close to a book a year, sometimes more. His recent efforts build on his oeuvre of the loneliness of living in a ideological and militarized country. However, there’s a new softness in his recent fiction writing. With age, it seems, Oz has turned away from the harsh criticisms and wholly melancholic visions of My Michael now as he attempts to redeem the voices and intimacies drowned out by the often necessary ideology of a burgeoning and threatened Jewish state.
There’s something of the imperative of Walter Benjamin in these efforts, in the attempts to rub against the grain of history, to redeem the lost souls of the past drowned out by ideological thinking. In his newest effort, Between Friends, Oz returns to the Kibbutz world of his youth. In his expansive, breathtaking memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, we learned that Oz left his stifling family life to enter the budding world of the Kibbutz. For Oz, this wasn’t simply an assertion of youth and its principles, but a breaking with his parents’ world of Old Europe for the New Sabra mentality of strong, virile, and powerful Jews, breaking their hands to break the land to follow the national will. Oz then, after a lifetime of avoiding writing about the kibbutz of the past, returns to document those beaten down by the rigors of Kibbutz Life. He places himself as a young budding writer on a kibbutz as stand in for his young self, and focuses his melancholy lens on the weak, the women who, despite the Kibbutz claims to equality, still received the treatment of housemaids, and most importantly, those seeking solitude in the din of communal life because, “In fact, the very idea of a kibbutz denied the concept of loneliness.”
A young, shy teenage boy finds himself alone in a roomful of healthy hot young workers only to find solace in books and in a dog flattened by a bus. A woman’s scoundrel husband leaves her and she takes small solace in nature then in caring for a man dying from emphysema who won’t give up cigarettes. Martin, the man with emphysema wants nothing more than to teach Esperanto, as a manifestation of his universal humanism. These characters are all lonely in the traditional sense, but on fire with what we would call the pulse of the world, the beauty of flowers, the need to carry the burdens of suffering, and to love nature. Another young boy wants to leave the Kibbutz to see the world, but really seeks an exit because he feels suffocated by the clarity the Kibbutz outlook presumes about life. The stories evince a paradoxically comforting and intimate loneliness so that these souls find communion, not even in each other, but their own thoughts, in the stability of nature that stands outside the plans of Man. What unites them all of them is their search for answers to a question they cannot form, but a question that haunts them. Here, Yotam walks through the wreckage of an Arab village, trying to simply articulate what eats at him:
Several times, in the early evening, he’d wandered alone among the ruins of Deir Ajloun for almost an hour. He went into the destroyed mosque and the dynamited sheikh’s house but found nothing there because he didn’t know what he was looking for, so, shoulders hunched, he walked back to the kibbutz. He had a vague desire now to return and examine the ruins, as if something were buried here under the avalanche of rocks or in the darkness of the blocked well, a simple answer. But what the question was, he didn’t know.
What strikes me important in this book, perhaps in all his books that as much as Oz saw himself as purposefully leaving the Old World mentality — sadness, loneliness, victimization, intellectuality — for the new active world of tanned, glowing Israelis, he can’t help but return in his writing to the modern substantiations of Old Europe in Israel. For a man who changed his last name from Klausner (past Goldenberger, can you think of a more perfect European Jewish name?) to Oz, which means strength in Hebrew, he does, ironically, love to return to what look like the weakest in a collective society that values ideology of individuals, strength over weakness, and social life over solitude. So much of his best writing seeks to create room for an interiority unavailable to those solely focused on defense, on military ideals. Here, in this collection, he collects the debris, the people who fell through the cracks of the communal Kibbutz ideology into an interconnected set of short stories. For the most part, the pain and tension between communal needs and individual desires comes from the urgency of history. David, the head of the Kibbutz, explains the situation to the teenage Yotam:
‘But you feel suffocated here and the big world is so alluring,’ David said without a question mark at the end of his sentence…David put a hand on his knee and said quietly, “But every Jew of the generation that witnessed the Holocaust, and especially now, so soon after the rebirth of the State of Israel, must see himself as mobilized to a cause. These are the critical years in the entire history of the Jewish people….Yotam could find no argument against that claim. But suddenly the phrase, “his days are as grass” came into his head and made him think how fleeting life is.
In that vein, this short book of short stories must be read in conjunction with Oz’s second most recent collection that serves as the perfect companion to these stories. With a similar sensibility, in Scenes from Village Life, Oz looks at the present of Israel and wonders what happened, how did the past that looked so ideological stable turn into a mess of a lost society, uncertain of its past, fearful of its present, and terrified for its future? Scenes from Village Life encapsulated much of the communicatory breakdown in Israel between the first generation ideological Zionists and the more pragmatic and ideologically tired new generation. Children cannot connect or relate to parents and vice versa, and too much gets subsumed under the often necessary ideology of strength and survival. Between Friends looks to the past to understand this present situation and finds the same struggle as part of the origin story of Israel. In a sense, the contemporary breakdown of intergenerational communication lies at the heart of the young history of Israel. In this narrative of the origin story the struggle of Israel has always been between what many perceive as the necessary ideology of survival with the humanity of its people, its neighbors. History tells the Jews to worry only about itself and its own survival, which throughout history largely required insular living.
But, Oz asks, as a group with a long history of victimization but now with immense power, what has happened, what will happen to all the human and lonely individuals that get trampled in the necessary fight for survival. Like Oz’s characters, he doesn’t have the answers to the questions he can barely form, which is part of the permeating sadness of these recent books. But he seems to realize that giving voice to the supposed debris of history plays a redemptive role.