PHILADELPHIA — Amos Oz is one of the best-known people in all Israel, one of the world’s best-known writers, and author of the newly published “Scenes From Village Life.” He’s also often mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize.
Problem: With all that freight on the name Amos Oz, people expect everything you write to be about Israel.
Oz isn’t thrilled, but he understands.
“Any literature from a troubled part of the world is bound to be read as an allegory about life in that part of the world,” he says, speaking by phone from New York. “But my book is not an allegory. It’s more about the human condition in general: love, loss, loneliness, longing” — he pauses, as if to switch alliterative consonants — “death, desire, and desolation. These are stories of people who have lost something.”
The title, “Scenes From Village Life,” deliberately echoes the subtitle of Anton Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya.” The Russian writers of the 19th and early 20th century were a huge inspiration for the young Oz, working on a kibbutz and trying to be a writer. When Oz, now 72, describes what he loves about Chekhov, he also delineates his new novel:
“Chekhov described very provincial people in small places far away from big cities, towns known only by a letter, such as M. or N.,” Oz says. “Those small people display the entire spectrum of comedy and tragedy. But with this difference: At the conclusion of a tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed — but still alive.”
Scenes is set in a small Israeli village named Tel Ilan (Tree Hill), “one of those older Jewish villages,” Oz says, “that far predate Israel itself.” Too closely bound to be called a collection of short tales, Scenes is better called a novel-in-stories.
The reader gets to know Tel Ilan very well. Time and again, characters walk by the bus stop or by the water tower “on its concrete legs.” One reader in the Netherlands sent Oz a sketched-out map of Tel Ilan. “It was so vivid in her head,” he says, “that she felt she could draw it.”
The eight stories in “Scenes” cohere tightly. A view of human life hums like a distant generator beneath the surface. Disappointment, in its many meanings, is a constant presence. It’s an Oz specialty, a theme he has made part of postmodern literature. People expect something and get either nothing or something unexpected. “Everyone,” says Oz, “is looking for something he is hiding from himself.”
(“Winesburg, Ohio,” by Sherwood Anderson, is mentioned. Oz’s voice brightens as he says, “That book inspired me to be a writer, perhaps more than any other.”)
In the exquisite “Relations,” doctor Gili Steiner awaits her beloved nephew, Gideon Gat. She has even cooked dinner — a dinner she will throw in the trash. In the heartbreaking “Waiting,” Benny Avni, village mayor, searches for his wife, Nava. Like all the stories, neither “Relations” nor “Waiting” explains itself, disappointing a certain kind of reader, who wants fast, sharp action and unmistakable meanings.
That’s not the universe of “Scenes,” though. Even the natural world is indeterminate, as in “Strangers”: “It was evening. A bird called twice. What it meant there was no way of telling.” In “Digging,” people hear a noise under Rachel Franco’s house. Above the floor, people debate Arab and Israeli relations. But who’s digging? Rachel looks. She peers with a flashlight into the darkness — a repeated image (people forever looking in rooms, under beds).
“The truth of these stories isn’t the point,” Oz says. “The point is the open-endedness. This is where we live.”
The word oz means “strength” in Hebrew. Young Amos Klausner changed his last name when he started living on a kibbutz. It was among the many changes for the young man, who broke from the rightward Zionism of his parents to become a Labor Zionist. “I was very concerned in those days to break from my father and his politics,” he says. His experience in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors led him to become one of the earliest prominent exponents of “the two-state solution.”
Characteristically, he says that solution “is not the best, but it is the only one possible. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are going anywhere. Neither have anywhere to go. They must divide the house, into two semidetached apartments. The day they do will be a bitter day.” If it’s inevitable, why hasn’t it happened? “I would say the patient is sadly ready for surgery, but the surgeons are cowards,” he says. (Oz unnervingly seems to speak in perfect sentences.)
Again, disappointment. Oz calls Israel “a dream come true — but it is in the nature of dreams to be disappointing when they come true. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to fulfill it.”
That truth hits, mallet on a soft gong, time and again in “Scenes From Village Life.” In Tel Ilan, people wait, or wander, or search, or fail at love, or sing. Or walk around naked. Flashlights wave. This is the village of Chekhov, Anderson, Oz. A village haunted by human life.