Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 265pp. £10.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Scenes From Village Life, By Amos Oz, trans. Nicholas de Lange
Friday 19 August 2011
If you can imagine a tenement building with a view into all the different windows you would see multiple, contrasting lives in private moments. Amos Oz's latest collection of eight stories uses this short-cut technique. However his panorama is not the city but the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. Although the scenes are set today, he evokes a Chekhovian atmosphere of tragic lives misled on haunted ground.
His protagonists are recognisably Chekhovian: the mayor; the schoolteacher; the eternal student (in this case, Arab); the self-made businessman; the postmistress; the jaded radical. Surrounding all these people is an individual sense of loss: the loss of hope between Arab and Jew; the loss of potential between a young boy and an older woman; the death of a marriage after an abortion. Oz's fast-paced dramas are gripping. A wife goes missing. A son blows his head off under his parents' bed.
Oz is also powerful in his evocation of the inexplicable. There are neo-Gothic moments as buildings almost become breathing characters. A house has a strange knocking underneath it. Another has a maze of mysterious underground rooms where a middle-aged man can be lost in an erotic journey with a young woman. The recurring theme of property - who owned it before 1948, and who is now is entitled to it - gives a throbbing tension. There is an implicit questioning of what the country was set up to do and how it has failed, both politically and personally. The accretion of sadness and waste, in each story, has an almost hypnotic effect.
Oz leaves us no resolution. His device of connecting separate lives by having a leading character in one tale turn up as a bit player in another offers a kind of symmetry. But what is most arresting is the cumulative effect of his narratives and the relationships between three generations of Israelis in a territory that has too many ghosts.
Oz's mythical Tel Ilan is a microcosm of a modern Israeli village and, although his stories are fiction, there is a kind of documentary element - as with Chekhov. These Israelis may be living in a new land but they are also suffused with the sense of inner exile which makes these stories so arresting. The last tale, "In a faraway place at another time", shocks us into the future – or the past. In this unnamed village, the young grow old before their time. Here death and putrefaction rule. Is this the Europe of the Hitler years or is it the end of the world?
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