The Indpepndent Foreign Fiction Award: Blue dawn over Jerusalem

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The Independent Culture
The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for August / September is Fima by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99), translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange. This book joins Isabel Allende's The Infinite Plan on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, which will be announced in June 1994. The judges this month were Penelope Fitzgerald, Jonathan Keates, Blake Morrison and Jill Neville.

Fima is a left-wing firebrand who is obsessed with both politics and sex, but can no more effect political change than he can fall in love. In Fima's big talk and little action, Oz gestures towards the tragedy of Israel, a state where people have often elevated the public gesture above private action. Jonathan Freedland, who interviewed Amos Oz in the Independent on 4 September, wrote that Fima is: 'The most articulate expression yet of a theme that Oz has been nurturing for years . . . this might turn out to be the first entry into Israel's 'post-war' literary canon.'

'AT HALF past six in the morning he woke with a start because a heavy object fell in the flat above, followed by a woman shouting, not for long or particularly loudly, but terribly, desperately, as though she had seen her own death. Fima leaped out of bed and into his trousers, then hurried to the kitchen balcony to hear better. No sound came from the upstairs flat. Only an invisible bird, which kept repeating three gentle syllables, as if it had come to the conclusion that Fima was so slow on the uptake that he would surely not understand. Shouldn't he go upstairs quickly to find out what had happened? To offer help? Rescue? To call the police or an ambulance? But he remembered that his telephone had been cut off, so he was relieved of the obligation to intervene. Besides which, it was possible that the crash and the scream had happened in his sleep, and his inquiry would cause nothing but embarrassment and derision.

Instead of going back to bed, he continued standing on the kitchen balcony in his long-sleeved vest, amid the vestiges of cages, jars and boxes where he and Dimi had once kept their can of worms. Now these exuded the rank smell of decay, of wet sawdust mixed with blackened droppings and remains of rotting food: carrots and cucumber peel and cabbage leaves and lettuce. At the beginning of the winter Dimi had decided to free the tortoises, insects, and snails they had collected in the wadi.

And where was the snow of last night? It was as if it had never been.

It had gone without trace.

Meanwhile the barren hills to the south of Jerusalem stood purged, flooded in blue radiance, so that it was almost possible to make out silvery flashes on the underside of the leaves of distant olive trees along the ridge of Beit Jalla. It was a cold, sharp light, crystal clear, sent to us perhaps as an advance against the distant days when suffering would end, when Jerusalem would be freed from its torments, and the people who took our place would live their lives calmly, considerately, rationally, and with good taste: then the light of the sky would be like this forever.

It was bitterly cold, but Fima, in his yellowing winter vest, did not feel it. He stood leaning on the railing, filling his lungs with the winelike air, marvelling at the possibility of suffering in the midst of such beauty. A minor miracle occurred this morning below him in the back yard. An eccentric, impatient almond tree had decided suddenly to flower, as though it had got its dates wrong. It was covered with tiny glow- worms that had forgotten to switch themselves off at the arrival of dawn. The glittering almond tree reminded Fima of a slim, pretty woman who has cried all night and not wiped away her tears. This image caused him childlike joy, and love, and a vague longing for Yael, for all women indiscriminately, with the bold resolve to open a new chapter in his life, starting this morning; to be from now on a rational, straightforward man, a good man.'

(Photograph omitted)