A state-of-the-nation address?

Review of Amos Oz's new book, "Scenes from Village Life."

countryside 521 (photo credit: www.goisrael.com)
countryside 521
(photo credit: www.goisrael.com)
Tel Ilan, the countryside setting of Amos Oz’s new book, is a curious place. “In the heart of the wild landscape of the desolate Mannaseh Hills,” it is no different from any number of similar rural retreats scattered across the country; it trades on its rustic charm at weekends, and tolerates a sleepy anonymity during the week. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows each other’s business, where secrets are a valueless currency.
Or perhaps not: this is fiction by Amos Oz, after all. Beneath the veneer of serenity lurks the specter of repressed emotion, unarticulated yet ominous.
Dipping in and out of the lives of its inhabitants through loosely connected short stories, Scenes from Village Life is a puzzling, at times disturbing construct. The book presents an overwhelming sensation of dysfunction in Tel Ilan, subtle yet real.
But the book is not a consideration of how things have gone wrong; rather, it explores the pretense of things being as normal, when in fact they are anything but.
Tel Ilan has a bland, formulaic presence.
Shuttered houses, well-kept gardens, rows of cypresses; bargain hunters from the city drift around boutique wineries and stalls selling homemade cheese at the weekend. It is different from the urban norm yet reassuringly familiar; its identifiers emphasize the village’s insularity, its place as an adjunct rather than a fully fledged part of the wider world. But it is the village’s inhabitants that stand out. Through Oz’s characterizations, they come across as prisoners, locked within a world neither of their creation nor – strictly speaking – of their own choice.
Take Kedem for example, an elderly ex-member of the Knesset apparently fortified against decrepitude and death by the intensity of his grudges from years past.
“He deliberately... forgot the names of present-day political leaders, just as the world had forgotten him. He, however, had forgotten nothing: He remembered the tiniest details of every insult, resented every wrong that had been done to him two and a half generations earlier, kept a mental note of every weakness shown by his opponents....”
Or Gili, a family doctor in the village, expecting the arrival of her nephew for a recuperative visit. She dotes on the boy, is a co-conspirator in youthful misdeeds, intends to leave her property to him when she dies; a “deep wordless bond tied them to each other forever.” Yet his docility excites violent passions, at odds with her tranquil, even shy external demeanor.
Ostensibly functional, these are people governed by passions beyond their control and even their understanding.
Oz has never suffered from an economy of words. But in Scenes from Village Life, this is actually no bad thing. When given enough room (and the patient goodwill of the reader), Oz can be a master of characterization.
Describing a secondary character in “Heirs,” the first story in the collection, Oz writes: “[He] had settled himself on the double swing seat, right next to his host, thigh to thigh. A cloud of thick smells clung close to his body, smells of digestion, socks, talcum powder and armpits. A faint odor of pungent after-shave overlay the blend...”
This isn’t too much. It creates not just an image, but an emotional response to the character, and highlights Oz’s writing at its best.
But where do these sketches, fleeting glimpses into private moments, lead us? Although Oz has grumbled about this in the past, the over-arching impression from his corpus is that of a preoccupation – a fixation, perhaps, with all that a fixation entails – with the internal well-being of Israel. So, in these loosely connected tales of dysfunction, can – or should – one extract a statement concerning the well-being of the country as a whole? And if so, is there anything left to say that he hasn’t said already? “There are some subjects and motifs that a writer comes back to again and again, because apparently they come from the root of his being,” Oz writes (tongue in cheek, one presumes) in “Strangers,” one of the stories in the slim volume. And if so, the collection may legitimately be considered as comment on the state of the nation. But in Scenes from Village Life, the mask of metaphor is worn very lightly, if indeed it is there at all. If Oz’s intention is to shock and disturb, the stories do that job pretty well all by themselves. Perhaps there is no need to read between the lines.