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Last hurrahs

Scenes from Village Life - Amos Oz

The redemptive power of dreams

Scenes from Village Life, by Amos Oz
Chatto & Windus, $29.95 hb, 265 pp, 9780701185503

Amos Oz, who is at the pinnacle of Israeli writing, epitomises the role of writer as a voice of hope, a moral guide, as well as the spinner of dream tales. Speaking recently at the Melbourne Town Hall, Oz captured the mood of progressive thought in Israel when he spoke of the pressing need for a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian–Israeli crisis, where the warring forces would negotiate over the small tracts of land at issue, and would respect each other’s claims of sovereignty over their lands as indigenous peoples and equals. With his gift for striking images, Oz spoke of a time when Israel and Palestine would have embassies in each other’s countries. Israel, Oz declared, should be the first state to recognise the new state of Palestine. But is it all a dream?

In his latest book of short stories, Scenes from Village Life, Oz explores an aspect of Israeli society which is slipping away – life in a rural village. In ‘Heirs’, Oz writes of a middle-aged man, Arieh Zelnik, estranged from his wife and family, who lives with his elderly mother in their gloomy house in the village of Tel Ilan. A lawyer turns up, claiming to be a relative of Zelnik, with a plan to move Zelnik’s mother out of the family house and to develop the property for ‘herbal treatments, massage, meditation, spiritual guidance, people would pay good money for what our place could offer them’.

Oz deftly inserts a dagger into the spine of the heartless world of city life. Irony is the key here, in the great tradition of the formidable and deeply ironic commentators on the ways of Jewish life, such as I.B. Singer and, well before him, Shalom Aleichem. These writers, like Oz, worked in the realm of the subconscious. They were informed by a deep understanding of the Bible as an account of dreams and a statement of longing.

The mythical Tel Ilan is the Clochemerle of Oz’s collection, where time moves at a much slower pace than in the urban society somewhere in the distance. These are stories of loneliness and ageing; of losing touch with the fast new world which has yet to arrive at Tel Ilan, but is coming.

In ‘Digging’, Oz flirts with the world of politics, telling the story of Pesach Kedem, a former parliamentarian, who has never forgiven his ‘Party’ for ‘falling apart and disappearing twenty-five years earlier’. Everything about the modern world disgusts Kedem. He has forgotten nothing of his days in politics, though everyone has forgotten him – ‘he remembered the tiniest detail of every insult’.

Kedem thinks that someone is digging beneath his house. Nothing of the kind is occurring, according to his loving widowed daughter, who assumes that this is a further sign of the old man’s senility. Both daughter and father are estranged from their families; estrangement seems to be a talisman here.

The old man hates visits from uninvited guests, firmly believing that ‘he and his daughter are enough company for each other’. The daughter, a schoolteacher, has taken in an Arab Haifa University student to live with them (and help around the house), to the great chagrin of her father, who blames the Arab student for the incessant digging – ‘Because he simply doesn’t like us. Why should he? What for? Because of all of our villainy, our cruelty, our arrogance? And our hypocrisy?’ For Kedem’s part: ‘I don’t like him either. Not one bit. I don’t like all they’ve done to us, and to themselves. And I certainly don’t like what they want to do to us.’ The Arab student is writing a book comparing Jewish and Arab village life. He announces that there is little different between the two communities, except that ‘Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from the soul.’

Soon enough, even the Arab student can hear the digging. The daughter decides that both men have gone quite mad. Then she too is persuaded. But what can it be?

Oz typically stops his stories part way through their telling. Isn’t that how dreams work?

In ‘Strangers’, a bookish and awkward teenage boy falls in love with a woman twice his age, the postmistress and librarian Ada Dvash (Hebrew for honey). Dvash loves reading the Bible; a subject, symbolically, the teenager wants to speak to her about but thinks he does not understand.

‘Have you ever loved someone with no hope that he will return your love?’ asks the boy. In a mad rush of passion, the boy embraces Dvash: ‘his loins went on rubbing against her hip until his spine and his knees were so flooded and shaken with pleasure that he had to hold onto her so as not to fall over.’ Dvash consumes the attention. The boy is mortified, unable to face Dvash again – they become the ‘strangers’ of the story’s title.

The collection ends with ‘In a Faraway Place at Another Time’, a story set in another time and place, a village in a swamp reminiscent of hell, where the soil bubbles and the children are sick with boils and gangrene, and the old folk are dying from atrophy of the airways. Life as we know it is coming to an end. The central character here is Oz himself, who has been sent by the Office for Underdeveloped Regions with the direction to save the village. For twenty-five years he has toiled to no effect: ‘I’m holding the fort until a replacement arrives, perhaps someone younger with a stronger character than mine.’ The writer here is offering a last hurrah.

A mysterious, healthy, handsome man appears ‘waving his arms, describing all manner of circles and spirals in the damp air, kicking, bowing, jumping on the spot, without uttering a sound’. Who could he be? No one knows. ‘We must catch him,’ demands a villager. ‘We must kill him.’ The mysterious messianic figure disappears, leaving the villagers to their punishing lot. Oz is wistfully passing a baton to another sage who might do a better job at keeping the spark of hope alive.

These short stories record the writer’s retreat to an introverted world where all the troubles and passions of life swirl in a small microcosm, bespeaking the truth to be found in the everyday world. They also attest to the writer’s sense of approaching the end of a long journey.

Oz is a deeply human writer, with a passionate belief in the redemptive power of dreams. In a fleeting moment during Oz’s Melbourne talk, I dreamt that he was prime minister of Israel, about forty years ago. Oz PM was making peace with his Palestinian counterpart and returning recently captured lands. Both sides, bitter combatants, had determined wisely to accept their fate. It was a visionary act. When my reverie ended, before me was an ageing and brilliant sage railing against wrongs and errors on all sides to a hall packed with ardent listeners, anxious for the slightest sign of hope in the face of seemingly endless fighting and misery.

Originally published in October 2011 edition of the Australian Book Review.