DECEMBER 4, 2013
“NO, I DO NOT believe there is any such thing as a ‘kibbutz literature,” Oz wrote in his 1974 essay, The Kibbutz at the Present Time. “There are poems and books that have a kibbutz setting, and there are poets and writers who live in a kibbutz, but the kibbutz has not inspired any ‘mutation’ of Hebrew literature.” Perhaps this is true, but as the kibbutz is a unique utopian, ideological and social experiment with its own characteristics, tragedies and charms, stories set in a kibbutz occupy a unique literary category. With his new novel-in-stories, Between Friends, Amos Oz has returned to the kibbutz, although one could argue he never really left. Even when set elsewhere, his stories are haunted by the parochial and familial atmosphere of the kibbutz. His characters, on and off the kibbutz, struggle for individuality and self-expression, experience restlessness, and confront the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams.
Considered one of the three tenors of Israeli literature alongside David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua (who are as much prophets and social critics as novelists), Oz began his career writing stories about the kibbutz. A resident and member of Kibbutz Hulda on Israel’s coastal plain from the age of 15 until he moved to Arad out in the desert in 1986, Oz completed Where the Jackals Howl and his first novel Elsewhere, Perhaps on the one day off per week he was permitted for writing (he worked Saturdays in the dining hall as recompense).
Between Friends brings Oz full-circle, dragging him back to the period between the Wars of Independence and the Six-Day War, the earliest years of statehood when the kibbutz was a younger, stronger, and more nakedly ideological institution than it is today. Set on his imagined Kibbutz Yekhat, Oz explores through a series of interwoven vignettes the disagreements, disappointments, and disillusionment felt in a compact and insular community where everybody lives on top of one another, there are no strangers, and gossip and intrigue abound.
The kibbutz was born out of a fantasy of those who, as Oz once wrote, “lost their religious faith and abandoned the religious commandments but they had not given up their devotion and drive and their thirst for the absolute” — immigrants from Europe and North America who gave up the Talmud and took up Marx. By turning over the soil, by planting trees and building homes, schools and factories, by creating a more communal and equitable society, the founders of the kibbutzim dreamt of becoming “the vanguard of a worldwide transformation.” As the product of a dream, however, the kibbutz was bound to disappoint. The socialism of the kibbutz did not account for human nature — as Oz puts it, “‘Life’ burst through with its infinite complexity that shatters the most acute and rounded and all-encompassing of ideologies.” There was depression, despondency, and jealously among the kibbutznikim. Some didn’t make it and took leave for an easier, larger life beyond the boundaries of the kibbutz, and the generations quarrelled with one another over the future of the experiment.
In Oz’s A Perfect Peace, Yonatan Lifshitz, feels constricted by the limits of kibbutz life and is disenchanted with its ideals as represented by his father, Yolek, the kibbutz secretary and upholder of the old values:
All through his childhood and adolescence, and for all his years in the army, he had been hemmed in by a tight little circle of men and women who had been interfering every step of the way. He had begun to feel they were keeping him from something and that he mustn’t let them do it any more [ … ] If while taking an afternoon ramble by the burned-out cypress trees at the far end of the kibbutz, he should run into someone who asked what he was doing there, he would say, as if loath to reply, ‘Oh, I’m just walking around.’ Yet a moment later he would ask himself, ‘What am I doing here?’
Yonatan’s relationship with the kibbutz is illustrative of the complicated bond between kibbutznikim and their home. If he were parted for it, he would miss the “sound of a recorder from the children’s house” as it mingled with the cries of birds and the “fragrance of evening as it slowly descended in the last days of summer over the newly mowed lawn.” And yet all the beliefs and ideas he had been inculcated with since boyhood “had shrivelled. Rather, they had simply paled away in his heart.” Such is his apathy and claustrophobia that, in the end, Yonatan feels the need to break out and takes flight into the desert.
Perhaps the finest example of Oz’s interest in the narrow or provincial would be Don’t Call It Night. Set in Tel Kedar, a small development town in the Negev, the story explores the breakdown of a long-term relationship between Theo, an aging civil engineer, and Noa, a young schoolteacher. Alternating between the two perspectives, Oz closely observes how the one sees the other, their movements, habits and rituals of everyday life for signs of conflict and decay:
I went back to the table. The omelette was cold, so Theo got up, put a tea towel round his waist as an apron, and started to make me a fresh one [ … ] Theo put a record on and we sat in the armchairs for a while without talking. Maybe at that moment we really did resemble each other as Muki once said about childless couples after years together.
The diminution of their love is precipitated by and set against the backdrop of Noa’s efforts to bring a drug rehabilitation clinic to the town, a move that upends and divides the entire community — “The whole town is against it. Somebody wrote anonymously in the local paper that we won’t let ourselves be turned into a rubbish dump for the whole country.” Initially cautious, Theo becomes more involved in the project, just as Noa’s passion for it fades. Here, Oz borrows another trait of kibbutz life: that the political is inseparable from the personal.
Oz’s best novels, like Don’t Call It Night, are those that are especially contained, both in terms of location — in villages, small towns, or in Israel’s largest village, Jerusalem — and the size of the cast. “Here I know a very large number of people, about three hundred,” Oz wrote of life on Kibbutz Hulda. “I know them at close range, in the way that you can know someone after twenty years in the same place,” adding, “If I lived in London, Tel Aviv, Paris, I could never get to know three hundred people so intimately.” Indeed, the closeness of the kibbutz allows Oz to explore his career-long fascination with character, as evident in Don’t Call It Night, in which Oz creates extravagant backstories for the most minor of actors. As an example:
Bozo’s wife and baby son were killed in a tragic event here four years ago, when a young love-crossed soldier barricaded himself in the shoe shop, started shooting with a submachine gun and hit nine people. Bozo himself was saved only because he happened to go to the Social Security that morning to appeal against his assessment. To commemorate his wife and child he has donated an ark made of Scandinavian wood to the synagogue, and he is about to give an air conditioner in their memory to the changing room at the soccer field, so that the players can get some air at halftime.
The study of people at close range is central to one of Oz’s more recent novels, Rhyming Life and Death, in which a novelist known only as the Author enters a reading of his book but, bored, begins to observe the crowd and conjure up life stories of the people he sees and meets, drawing them together to form stories within a story. “It is as though he were picking their pockets,” the Author reflects, “while the audience is immersed in the byways of his writing.”
In Rhyming Life and Death, Between Friends, as well as his previous collection Scenes from Village Life, Oz’s prose is notably less complex and ambitious. To the extent that content dictates form, it is as if the intimate study of character and space from the kibbutz to the village to the book reading demands a clearer, less ornamental style of prose. In contrast to The Same Sea — first published in English in 2001, written in verse and rhyme, spanning locations, with overlapping voices and a narrative heavy with allusions to the Torah and the Talmud — the sentences in Between Friends are simple and accessible:
In the early hours, the first rain of the season began to fall on the kibbutz houses, its fields and orchards. The fresh smell of damp earth and clean leaves filled the air. The rain rattled along the gutters and washed the dust off the red roofs and tin sheds. At dawn, a gentle mist enveloped the buildings, and the flowers in the gardens sparkled with beads of water. A redundant lawn sprinkler continued its sputtering. A child’s wet red tricycle stood diagonally across a path. From the treetops came the sharp astonished cries of birds.
Oz’s writing becomes deliberate and controlled. It reads as if all extraneous words have been removed and yet the narrative does not lack for detail or description. Indeed, Kibbutz Yekhat is extremely evocative of a previous time in the history of the kibbutz, when it was a place “full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules” — enforcing the collective way of life means involving oneself in everyone else’s business.
In the story “Little Boy”, for example, the Committee for Preschoolers instructs Leah on how to raise her son, Oded, who is viewed as sickly, frightened, and lonesome. She is told to be “firm with him in order to wean him off this self-indulgent behavior” and so she takes to punishing him for crying. “She was against hugging and kissing, believing that the children of our new society had to be strong and resilient.”
In “Deir Ajloun”, Henia Kalisch desperately wants for her son Yotam to be granted dispensation by the kibbutz to go to college. “There’s no point in bringing that up at the meeting,” Brunia tells her. “Your Yotam has no special standing here. No one does [ … ] And why should I vote for him? When my Zelig asked to work in the vineyard six years ago, did you support him? You all voted against him. All you hypocrites and paragons.”
Above all, Between Friends seeks to highlight the deep loneliness present in even the most cooperative of environments. “On the kibbutz it’s hard to know,” the secretary Yoav Carni says at one point in “Deir Ajloun.” “We’re all supposed to be friends, but only very few really are.” Henia’s son Yotam is described as a “shy young man who spoke little,” and, when spoken to, wears “a faint expression of wonder spread across his face, as if all the words directed at him surprised or frightened him.”
Much like Yonatan Lifshitz in A Perfect Peace, Yotam believes that solace and opportunity are to be found only outside the borders of the kibbutz. In his case, unable to leave, he escapes from time to time by taking walks among the ruins of Deir Ajloun, a depopulated Arab village, going between the rocks and houses in thought:
For a moment, he imagined he had already left the kibbutz and gone off to a new life, a life without committees, general meetings, public opinion or the-fate-of-the-Jews [ … ]It was clear to him now that the real issue [was] whether he had enough courage to leave the kibbutz, his mother and his brother, and go out into the world with only the shirt on his back. To that question he found no answer.
“Deir Ajloun” is unsettling — one of many stories in this beautiful collection without a resolution. Indeed, pervasive throughout Between Friends has an atmosphere of unease as a cast of unsettled, restless, and melancholic characters partake in stories or events that are never fully resolved. Indeed, the only tale with a proper ending is “Esperanto,” which fades out on a funeral scene with the shovelling of earth and the few mourners departing the graveside one-by-one. The kibbutz itself continues to evolve and has yet to find the answer to life’s essential questions.
As the kibbutznikim stand over the grave of Martin Vandenberg, Yoav Carni delivers a short eulogy. “He came to us imbued with belief in people and in a future burning with the bright flame of justice,” the kibbutz secretary says. “He was an intellectual and also a man who believed in the importance of physical labour, a man of principle.” Here, Oz is showing us not just what has been but what has been lost — it is a eulogy for a kibbutz that no longer exists and a lost era in Israeli history. Sure in his intent and voice, familiar with the ground upon which his characters tread, Between Friends is Oz’s finest work in years, conveying the feelings of restlessness and downheartedness, yearning and loss with a rediscovered clarity.