This is a tiny book that doubles both as a children's fable and an allegory for adults. It may be a fast read, but it has enormous resonances. The narrative is based in a mysterious town without animals or birds. Legend tells that they have been spirited away by the Pied Piper figure of Nehi, the mountain demon. The animals live in a paradise where no beast devours another and harmony reigns.
The protagonists are Maya and Matti. Amos Oz's narrative drive is their forest journey in search of the lost beasts. They rebel against adult secrets and voyage into the dangerous world of knowledge and experience.
What are we to make of Oz's world without animals? There are multiple interpretations. Although the children try to escape a society built on lying, when they arrive at the animal oasis, they find no single truth: only a seemingly safe environment, with hints of malevolence.
Is this an allegory about the Holocaust, where the terrible past of vanished beings weighs like a dark secret? Is it a story of the return from exile to a "Promised Land", which offers only trouble? Oz suggests no distinct clues, offering only a sense of immense loss.
Maya counts a row of trees. At night she sees nine and the next day only eight. In the Jewish calendar, the ninth day of Av, which starts on the eighth day of the Hebrew month, is noted as the "saddest day of the year".
In Sondra Silverston's spare and sharp translation, a sense of great anxiety fills the tale and the occasional moments of humour are bittersweet. Oz's outcasts includes Ginone the blacksmith, who returns from the forest as a shrunken child. Nimi, a visionary, is an attractive-repulsive boy with a permanently running nose. Emanuella, the teacher, chases all men and is mocked for getting nobody. There's no neat resolution; rather, this is a nightmare world closer to the brutality of Charles Perrault than the happy endings of Hans Christian Andersen.