Review by Israel Drazin
Scenes from Village Life
By Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 182 pages
Amos Oz is a great writer. He writes in Hebrew, and his books are translated into English. He is considered one of the top three Israeli writers. This book, published in 2011, contains eight brilliant, short, perceptive, thought-provoking, and somewhat disturbing vignettes, about sometimes surreal citizens of an Israeli village. Great literature contains ambiguities as well as obscurities that cause readers to think and become, in a sense, co-authors with the writer in imagining the details of the tale. Oz’s book is like that.
For example, in the first story Heirs, an unusual stranger, outlandishly dressed with bizarre behavior, arrives at the home of a troubled man and tells him that he would like to buy his very old mother’s house, the house in which he and his mother are living. The son is conflicted. He wants and doesn’t want to sell. He tells the man to leave. But the man ignores the order, enters the house, goes to the silent old woman’s bedroom, and gets into bed with her, strokes and kisses her, and mummers softly, “Everything is going to be all right, dear lady. It’s going to be lovely. We’ll take care of everything.” The son also undresses and gets into the bed with his old mother. Readers will ask: What is the significance of the bed scene? Why is the tale called Heirs in the plural when the old woman has only a single son? Does the old woman symbolize Jerusalem and the two men represent Israelis and Palestinians, each entering the same bed, each inheriting the same land?
The seventh story Singing is also thought-provoking. Villagers come to a home to sing together, the home of a couple whose son committed suicide under their bed, and lay there dead for a day undiscovered. The husband is still shocked by the event, and sits on the side brooding, while others sing. A visitor sees the scene and becomes depressed. He wanders upstairs, confused, without understanding why he is doing so. He enters a bedroom, and thinks: “I had no further reason to turn my back on despair. So I got down on my hands and knees at the foot of the double bed and, rolling back the bedspread, tried to grope with the pale beam of my flashlight into the dark space underneath.” Readers will enjoy reading the artistic descriptions of the events and developing an explanation of the visitor’s gloom and the significance of his behavior.
In the third vignette Digging we read about the interrelations of three different people: an old almost senile, very dissatisfied, fault-finding father; his good-looking, well-groomed daughter, a widow in her mid-forties, a teacher of literature in the village, who patiently cares for her father; and a young Arab student who is writing about relationships, who she allows to live in a hut on her property in exchange for help in repairing her house and property. Her father complains that he hears digging under their house at night. She is certain that he is imagining the noise and changes his medicine. Then the Arab boy asks her about the digging. She sleeps soundly and hears nothing. She decides she should stay up and listen, and she hears the digging as well. What is going on? What is Amos Oz telling us?
In the tale called Strangers we read about the puppy love of a seventeen year old boy for a short plump overworked librarian twice his age. We read how he rubs up against the older woman, and the psychological and sociological consequences to the two of them. The story is called Strangers because of these consequences. It teaches us about relationships, along with much else.
In summary, Amos Oz explores the psyche of people in a small village in these vignettes. But he gives us much more than a fascinating exploration of the mind-set of village people. He shows us a mirror that reflects life outside of the village.