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St. Amos
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St. Amos

Israeli novelist Amos Oz tends to speak in the kind of tossed off epigrams that come only with a lot of practice. But just when you want to smack him for his breezy erudition, he redeems himself with a flash of spot-on — and hilarious — self-awareness.

Speaking last week at the 92nd Street Y about his new novel, Scenes From Village Life, Oz said that 99 percent of the typical media coverage of Israel involves extremist settlers, ultra-Orthodox fanatics, and brutal soldiers, “and 1 percent saintly intellectuals like myself.”

If Jews were in the canonization business, Oz would have earned his wings (halo? robe? My theology is shaky) on the basis of A Tale of Love and Darkness, his 2002 novel cum memoir. As The New Republic’s Ruth Franklin said in introducing Oz, the book is not just autobiographical, but a biography of Israel itself. Although his story ends before he is out of his teens, the young Amos bears witness to the destruction of European Jewry, the height of the British mandate, a Hebrew renaissance in Jerusalem, the great Zionist debates (and debaters) of the day, the rise of the kibbutz movement, and the birth of the state.

The book’s brilliance is its blurring of personal memoir and national drama, as in an unforgettable description of the night in 1947 when the UN voted to partition Mandatory Palestine, giving international legitimacy to a Jewish state. His father, Yehuda Klausner, still “drenched in sweat from the crush of the crowds” celebrating the UN vote, crawls into bed with the young Oz. He tells the boy of the “hooligans” who tormented him and his brother back in Odessa and Vilna, and how the bullies forced Oz’s grandfather “down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground.”

Oz continues:

And still in a voice of darkness with his hand still losing its way in my hair (because he was not used to stroking me) my father told me under my blanket in the early hours of November 30, 1947, “Bullies may well bother you in the street or at school some day. They may do it precisely because you are a bit like me. But from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. Forever.”

In his 92Y talk, Oz explained that the book is neither a memoir nor a novel, but in fact a “tale,” a designation that unfortunately has no category in the Library of Congress. Instead, the book combines Oz’s strengths as both a novelist and a writer of impassioned political nonfiction — as he put it, he has two pens on his desk, “one pen to tell stories and another pen to tell the government to go to hell.”

If quips like that sound rehearsed — well, when you have material this good and a body of work so essential, you get a pass. Besides, you can’t plagiarize yourself. And what quips they are! Asked why so many of his stories seem so downbeat, he replied, “If I were to sum up my books in one word, I would say they are about ‘families.’ If you gave me two words, I would say, ‘unhappy families.’” He added that a bridge that carries thousands of cars each day is no story at all. “It is only when the bridge collapses that the story begins.”

Most countries, he said, are born out of geography, history, politics, or demography. Unfortunately for Israel, it was born out of a dream. “The only way to keep a dream intact is never to live it out,” he said. “Israel is a dream come true, and therefore it is disappointing.” Again, the fact that Oz has said this before does not make it any less true, nor any less poignant.

Oz read portions from the new book, a novel-in-stories set in the kind of out-of-the-way Israeli village one character compares to Tuscany. He said that there are about 15 of these “historical” villages in Israel, each only twice as old as the state itself. The characters, he said, are “small-time dreamers,” lonely, “half-knowing, half-touching” people for whom “time is frozen.”

Of course, this being Oz, Israel’s left-wing conscience as well as its greatest living writer of fiction, there is the temptation to read politics into his prose. In taking his characters into the hills, is he symbolically retreating from the public arena? Is he chiding Israel for betraying its past?

“There are political overtones,” he acknowledged. When he tries to deny that, he said, “I am wasting my time. People will see it as an allegory.”

Still ruggedly handsome and fit at 72, Oz can make you forget that so many of the things that he has come to stand for — a vital Israeli Left, a robust peace process, a vision for sharing the land — are in retreat. But he doesn’t seem to be giving up. Recalling that he has been called disloyal, he offered his own definition of a traitor: “A traitor is a person who hates change and doesn’t even understand what change is.”

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