Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review | Between Friends

Between Friends... between friends
Readers may recall a few months ago I read Amos Oz's The Black Box, saying that I was debating between reading that book and... this one - Between Friends (בין חברים). Reading The Black Box was a thoroughly interesting, but also somewhat uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to recommend the book, but I didn't like it. I was fascinated by it, but I hadn't enjoyed it at all. And I knew that it wasn't like Scenes from Village Life, which I had really enjoyed.

Between Friends is in some ways much more like Scenes from Village Life than The Black Box. This is mostly because of its format - like Oz's earlier book, Between Friends is a collection of short stories about a certain place, where characters appear and reappear throughout, and where the location is more of a main character than anyone else. Scenes from Village Life used a level of distance to tell a story about modern Israeli life; Between Friends goes back in time to the kibbutz of the fifties.

But here Between Friends finds a major similarity with The Black Box. Unlike Scenes from Village Life which had some perfectly crafted stories and characters I immediately felt connected with, Between Friends is filled with utterly unsympathetic characters in frustrating situations. The stories made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable; I honestly didn't want to spend much more time with this kibbutz and its inhabitants. But I did, because despite its rougher edges, Oz's writing is compelling and compulsively engaging. As always, his writing is distinctly "not-beautiful", but... it's worth reading.

The historical setting of this one sets it apart from either of Oz's previous novels that I've read. Between Friends takes advantage of the shadow of the Israeli War of Independence, in regards to the political situation in Israel as well as its socioeconomic situation. Oz uses his foresight as a modern author to play with the concept of the kibbutzim's socialism, through the prophecies of a dedicated founder of the kibbutz, or the hard-line beliefs of one of its prominent members, or the casual acknowledgement of its changing future from its young-generation secretary. Oz uses his distance to gently emphasize the future that is to come, but oddly enough he casts no judgement one way or the other. Oz's voice is usually a dry, almost dead tone behind his characters; this time he seemed even more unresponsive than usual.

I can't help but compare Between Friends to both The Black Box and Scenes from Village Life. In structure, it is similar to the latter; in my tepid but intrigued response to it, it is much more like The Black Box, except I think I got more from The Black Box than I did from Between Friends, which felt a bit like a weak imitation of Scenes from Village Life for me. It can work as an introduction to Oz, certainly, and it's not a bad book by any means. But it's not particularly likable either, as accomplished as it may be. In other words... it's a book by Amos Oz. Difficult to classify, but recommended reading.

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Finally, a minor quibble. When I first saw the translated title on the inside cover of the Hebrew edition*, my immediate instinct was to correct what I felt was a bad translation. I hoped it was a temporary title. Now that I realize that Between Friends is indeed the final title, I'll only mention as a side-note that I personally would have translated the title as Among Friends - like many Israeli titles, there's an air of ambiguity to the original Hebrew. But this is entirely irrelevant.

* Hebrew books almost always (always) have an English version of the title inside. This isn't always the actual title once (if) the book is translated into English, but it often is.

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