Digging Amos Oz

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Amos Oz, near the end of his life.

Amos Oz is one of the big names of world literature. An Israeli, he lived from 1939 to 2018, dying late 2018 of cancer. Starting out as the son of a right-wing immigrant couple in Israel, he ran off to a kibbutz at age 14 and became a socialist and then, throughout his life, a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. He published 40 books.

I’ve been reading just one of them, a collection of short stories from 2009 called Scenes from Village Life.  These are eerie and lightly ironic tales of ordinary individuals living out their days in dusty Israeli villages. The characters are ordinary, yes, but are described, in both their exterior and interior dimensions, in extraordinary and empathic detail.

Oz’s socialist bent may be seen in these attentions. He does not bring up only to dismiss a character because he or she is odd, or old, or crazy, or other. 

The first story “Heirs” ends with the stranger who has come to the door, pronouncing himself a relative, climbing into bed with the protagonist and his ancient mother:

And so the three of them lay, the woman whose house it was, her silent son and the stranger who kept stroking and kissing her while he murmured softly, “Everything is going to be all right, dear lady. It’s all going to be lovely. We’ll take care of everything.”

The third, and longest, story “Digging” is told from the point of view of a forty-something schoolteacher, Rachel, who puts up, and puts up with, her ancient father and an Arab boy, Adel, who lives in a shack on the property and does odd jobs in return for his shelter.

Here’s the cantankerous old father described in the first paragraph of the story: 

As the end of his life approached, Pesach Kedem, the former Member of the Knesset, lived with his daughter, Rachel, on the edge of the village of Tel Ilan in the Manasseh Hills. He was a tall, vituperative man with a hunched back. On account of kyphosis, his head was thrust forward almost at a right angle. At eighty-six years of age, he was gnarled and sinewy, his skin reminded you of the bark of an olive tree, and his tempestuous temperament made him seem to be boiling over with strongly held ideals and opinions. All day long he pottered around the house in his slippers, wearing an undershirt and a pair of khaki trousers that were too loose on him and were held up by braces. He invariably wore a shabby black beret that came halfway down his forehead, which made him look like a tank commander put out to grass. And he never stopped grumbling: he swore at a drawer that refused to open, cursed the newscaster who muddled Slovakia and Slovenia, railed at the westerly wind that whipped up suddenly and scattered his papers on the veranda table, and shouted at himself because when he bent down to pick them up, he bumped into the corner of the table as he stood up.

Isn’t this marvelous? Such patient, right-on details. Such an accumulation of effects that point toward the fragile whole of the dying man.

And yet the dying man, or the man near “the end of his life,” anyway, is not held up in sentimental tenderness. He’s a kook, an oddball, a curmudgeon. He makes his daughter’s life difficult and pesters the Arab boy. He calls his daughter by his late wife’s name, and even mother’s, and tells her the Arab kid, who’s a would-be writer and talks to the cats in Arabic, is digging under his room at night — to undermine him, you see, the way the Palestinians will undermine Israel and put it out of existence. 

By the end of the story, in which nothing particular happens, as nothing particular happens in real life, even the daughter is beginning to suspect that someone’s digging beneath her bedroom. In her nightdress she goes outside and shines a flashlight under the house, but sees nothing. The story ends:

Nothing stirs the row of cypresses separating her yard from the cemetery. There is no hint of a breeze. Even the crickets and the dogs have momentarily fallen silent. The darkness is dense and oppressive, and the heat hangs heavily over everything. Rachel Franco stands there trembling, alone in the dark under the blurred stars.

Reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ “Snow Man,” but without the wintry coldness, of course, and the nihilism.

… the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

No, Amos Oz is a lyrical writer, empathic, seeking, digging to the end.