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Review: Between Friends, By Amos Oz. Chatto & Windus, £12.99

 

This novella of connected stories is set in the early years of Israel, on an agricultural kibbutz somewhere in Ben Gurion's socialist state.

This is Amos Oz's second kibbutz book, after Where the Jackals Howl (1965). In the Sixties, few questioned the longevity of the concept of the kibbutz as a socialist utopia. But in Between Friends, with its focus on the friction between the individual and the collective, the modern reader has the extra knowledge that the kibbutz dream is cracking.

The kibbutz was formed by the Socialist Zionist movement, first imagined in Tsarist Russia. There would be female equality and free love; children would belong to the collective; labour would be communal and the kibbutz self-sufficient. However, this edenic vision is challenged by the day-to-day experience of Oz's kibbutzniks.

In "Two Women", Osnat's lover Boaz has left her for her neighbour, Ariella. The abandoned and the chosen start a correspondence about their beloved which leads to a far deeper female connection. Oz reveals the passive quality of the man and the active energy of the women. He suggests that the kibbutz philosophy of free love is fine but, without true emotional connection, can it work?

In "Little Boy", Oz offers a critique of the way children's lives belong more to the kibbutz than to their families. Puny Oded is bullied in kindergarten, where the children share a dormitory. His father wants to take him home to sleep but the weight of the collective insists the child return to the children's house. Oz suggests that a vulnerable child should not be endangered to support political dogma.

Each interconnected narrative reveals an individual in conflict with the group. But the stories also depict the kibbutz within the larger land of Israel. The secular kibbutznik offend the religious outside. And the shadow of the destroyed neighbouring Arab village reminds the kibbutzniks of their national struggle and of the injustices suffered by those who once lived there. This is a gripping text which both criticises and celebrates the ideals of kibbutz life, in an exemplary translation by Sondra Silverston.

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