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Review: Between Friends, By Amos Oz (Trs Sondra Silverston)

Amos Oz uses beautiful prose to build an evocative portrait – the hopes, dreams, successes and failures – of life on an Israeli kibbutz in the Fifties

Kibbutz life is based on principles of economic and social equality. As Amos Oz demonstrates in this engaging collection of eight stories, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, communal living can be lonely and those that strive for equality often end up compromising on something else. Oz and his family lived on a kibbutz for many years and he has previously used his experiences in his fiction. In Between Friends he returns to the 1950s when the Holocaust is still fresh in people's minds.

Oz introduces us to a variety of characters who offer different perspectives on their collective community. Many are dealing with loss, disappointment, or are searching for something that is always just beyond reach. Despite their libertarian ideals, Oz's kibbutzniks are governed by strict rules and prohibitions. Some have been denied their preferred career paths or had to abandon plans to study for the good of the community. Most are defined by what they do best on the kibbutz. Through casual observations in the first person, Oz suggests that he is bearing witness.

Zvi Provizor is a lonely, middle-aged bachelor who tends the gardens. He delights in being the first to relay the news from outside, particularly if it is bad – "earthquakes, plane crashes, buildings collapsing on their occupants, fires and floods" – as well as noting which famous people have died. He is nicknamed "the Angel of Death", and other kibbutz members give him a wide berth. Zvi strikes up a friendship with a widow but is too afraid to take it further: "Never in his adult life had he touched another person intentionally, and he went rigid whenever he was touched."

An air of disappointed love also imbues "Two Women". Ariella writes to Osnat to ask for her advice. After stealing Osnat's husband she has discovered that he is not all that she expected and is experiencing intense feelings of guilt. Wisely, Osnat does not reply and the kibbutz's daily routine allows her to retain her dignity: "Her nights are dreamless now, and she wakes even before the alarm rings. The pigeons wake her."

In such a close-knit community it is almost inevitable that some marriages will fail, and that there will be separations and betrayals of friends. In the title story, David Dagan, a middle-aged teacher and one of the kibbutz founders, is a classic philanderer. He changes lovers frequently and has fathered six children with different women. But no one dares to judge or criticise him. Nahum Asherov, a quiet, solitary electrician, is dismayed when his 17-year-old daughter moves in with David but is unable to articulate his true feelings to his friend.

One of the most heartbreaking stories is that of Moshe Yashar, a sensitive young man and animal lover, whose elderly father is in a hospital on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Moshe seeks permission to leave the kibbutz and is allowed only the briefest of visits. On the way he witnesses a dog being run over and, tending to the dying animal, is delayed. When he finally arrives, Moshe has to endure the agony of conversing with a parent who barely recognises him.

Moshe's cutting of familial ties is one of the many examples of self-sacrifice that kibbutzniks are expected to make. Another involves the "sharing" of offspring. Children are deemed to belong to the entire kibbutz. They sleep in a children's house and are permitted to visit their parents for only a few hours a day. When Roni Shindlin's son is badly bullied one night, he ends up beating an innocent five-year-old boy as retribution. His violent reaction, one suspects, is in response to being forcibly separated from, and so unable to protect, his son. In "Deir Ajloun", Yotam's uncle offers him the opportunity to study in Italy. Yotam dreams of escape, but knows the committee will never agree to him accepting his uncle's gift.

Oz brilliantly conveys the harsher side of kibbutz life. Individual actions have to be for the good of the community and everything is held in common. But frustrated desires breed resentment and there is a vivid sense of repressed anger running through some of the tales. As one character observes, the older generation have "simply exchanged one belief system for another. Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue and David Dragan is their rabbi."

Oz also touches on controversial issues such as some kibbutzniks wanting to keep their Holocaust reparation money and the employment of women in the kitchen, laundry, and children's house while the men work the fields. Both challenge the kibbutz's principles of equality. Oz offers no easy answers to the questions he raises. Instead, using beautiful, spare prose, he builds an evocative portrait of a 1950s kibbutz, the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants, and the successes and failures of communal living.