What do you say when one of your greatest authors paints a desperately grim picture of culture and life? Do you dismiss it as universal, as timeless, as simply the cranky rantings of an old man? Can you in good conscience do that? Amos Oz, one of Israel’s primary literary voices has written a small, but powerful book on the not-so quiet desperation of his land and people. Oz writes with a sense of confusion towards the present, perhaps even a sense of despair, a grim questioning of the past, and with a fear for the future.
The book, Scenes from Village Life, captures the everyday struggles of the inhabitants of the fictional Israeli village, Tel Ilan. The town, a small, incestuous community begins to tear apart at its seams. There are few marriages, or even healthy intimate relationships. Instead, Oz writes of strange familial relationships rising from odd circumstances. An aunt loves her nephew, like a son, but in a strangling manner. A son loves his mother with the neurotic zeal of a dependent soul, and a father loves his daughter with the pathetic devotion of a fallen giant clinging to a glimpse of his once greatness.
In these eight short stories, characters appear, unannounced, threatening ominous actions without resolution, while other disappear or leave. Loss permeates these stories, but loss without explanation or redemption. The city dwindles as it bleeds its citizens, destroys its buildings, and just falls into the malaise of decay. A haunting sense of uncertainty permeates the stories, uncertainty about purpose, about role, and about values previously held dear. History falls apart. Trust in others withers away. Loneliness reigns supreme. At the same time that Oz describes the land the way a lover describes his beloved, the connection to the beloved grows ever more tenuous with each word.
In the first story, Heirs, a stranger, who claims to be a relative of one of the inhabitants of the town, comes, without permission, to assert his right to the protagonist’s land. In another story, Digging, a house’s foundation crumbles as each character progressively hears a digging noise at night, a noise that eats away at the ground.
Oz writes from a generation dying out, a generation finding it increasingly hard to connect to the next generation or to themselves. This theme emerges most explicitly in the penultimate story, Singing. Here, a group of people weaned on Zionist songs and values, gather together in what I imagine a Camp Massad reunion looks like to sing away the pain and conflict, amongst like-minded peers. The only young person mentioned in the story is the dead son of the hosts, a 17 year old boy who shot himself under his parents bed. (In fact, few young people appear in the book.)
In an attempt to keep up, or to hide from memories, the town attempts to renovate itself with new cultural markers. In a Freudian sense, the town tries to paint over its scars, wounds, and bullet-holes. However, the more the town attempts suppression through aesthetic changes or avoidance, the more the pasts intrudes, even into into the lives of other inhabitants. In the culmination to aforementioned story, Singing, a man, panicked by a gnawing sense of obligation to search his pockets, finds himself, unbidden, searching out the untouched shrine of a room to the son who killed himself. It’s a heart-grabbing, fist biting symbolic scene that speaks volumes on the history of Israel.
The last story of the collection serves as a brilliant coda to the more grounded stories beforehand. Here, Oz dips into the pool of magical realism and allegory, in the style of Kafka and Garcia Marquez. Oz, from the perspective of a government man sent to tend to a less civilized people, describes a devolution, a reverse genesis, where the lands spits out its inhabitants. The man waits everyday for replacements, only to find the people growing less humane each morning. The story inverts the classical Israeli narrative in which the early pioneers miraculously converted swamplands into gorgeous, thriving environments, because here, “Iron tools rust overnight, mildew eats at the walls, straw and hay turn black with moisture as though burnt in fire, mosquitoes swarm everywhere, our homes are full of flying and crawling insects. The very soil bubbles.” Like any good Kafka fable, the experience of the story, one of destabilization, transcends any attempts at analysis.
Scenes from a Village Life signifies a brave look into the dark side of a complex country. (An Arab tenant, Adel, tells a crank, Pesach, “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul.”) Because of this ability to stare into the creeping darkness Oz fashions his best work in many years.