Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scenes from Village Life

My need to read something by Amos Oz has been growing for several years. It seemed unreasonable to me that I had not read anything by one of the classic Israeli novelists simply because growing up I had no books in my house (my mother doesn't like his writing style). With many of the gaps in my Hebrew literary knowledge filled, it seemed time to tackle Oz and see what all the fuss is about. I chose a relatively recent publication - Scenes from Village Life (תמונות מחיי הכפר) - and read it last weekend.

Scenes from Village Life is another in a long line of short story collections that centers around a certain character or locale. In this case, it's the latter: Tel Ilan is a small Israeli village filled with slightly offbeat characters and stories that revolve around strange and vaguely unbelievable occurrences. There's an air of distance and fantasy to the whole book, a kind of gentle mockery of the entire concept of the collection.

Scenes from Village Life is unlike many short story collections in that its opening story is its weakest. Upon reread it improves somewhat, but it opens the book on a distinctly odd note. Luckily, the following story "Relations" is simply superb. It may be one of the finest short stories I've ever read. The underlying anxiety, the gentle focus on family and familial love, and the slow, quiet pace are all incredibly done and by the story's end, I knew that Scenes from Village Life was going to be worth the read.

And it was. Each story is a bit twisted and strange and incomplete, but they fit together wonderfully to form the overall book. The writing, true, is a bit blunter than some of Israel's other literary masters, but Oz's ability to create a character with whom the reader can relate in so few pages is nothing short of astounding. Truthfully, Oz doesn't even need that much embellishment - the fictional Tel Ilan's vagueness can make it anyplace so much easier. That idyllic, pastoral impression that is constantly mentioned is the cracking outer edge of a concept that is infinitely more complex and universal.

What struck me most of all was how not-Israeli the majority of the characters are. Their setting, their anxieties, and their existence are purely Israeli, yes, but their personalities felt a little off. With the exception of the former politician in "Digging" whose reminiscing fits a certain mold , none of the characters fill the familiar Israeli stereotypes and as such feel somewhat foreign. For an Israeli reader, this enhances the distance Oz creates between reader, setting and character. I'm not sure what an international reader would get from this subtle characterization.

I can see why some readers don't like Amos Oz. His style isn't as clean and smooth as A. B. Yehoshua's, for example, nor as emotionally charged as David Grossman's, but it felt a bit more adventurous and experimental. Certainly, this short story collection is wonderfully characterized and is still beautifully written, even if it's a strange type of beauty. I finished reading Scenes from Village Life in a blur and could easily recommend it to other readers. Though I didn't really like the opening and closing stories (the last story takes the reader to a different, futuristic-seeming setting with an allegorical purpose that just didn't click for me), the meat of Scenes from Village Life is excellent. Yes, I'll be reading more by Amos Oz.

* Goodreads for some odd reason attributes the publication to 1998, though the book was actually published in 2009

1 comment:

  1. I quite liked the first story (intentionally unsettling in my opinion), but I did feel the last part was unnecessary. However, all in all I loved this book, and I was outraged (!) when the panel for the Independent Foreign Fiction Panel left it off the shortlist - we in the Shadow Panel were tipping it as a possible winner :(

    By the way, have you read the eventual winner, 'Blooms of Darkness'? I really didn't like it, so I struggled to see how it was better than this (or most of the other books)...

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