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Notes on a Nameless Place: Reading Amos Oz’s 'Scenes from Village Life'

“This book isn’t about the nature of Israel,” says the author, smiling wryly. “It’s about the nature of dreams.”

At the publication of his fourteenth novel, Scenes from Village Life, Amos Oz is considered by most of the literary world as the Israeli novelist. Between the pages of his novels, essays and memoir – as well as in those of A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman – contemporary Israel, in all of its complexities, is supposedly captured.

Yet this time, Oz insists that his latest novel is, in fact, completely unrelated to Israel, but rather about “how people live together and yet apart from each other.” At a reading and conversation with journalist Ruth Franklin at the 92Y this past October, Oz casually explains that Scenes from Village Life is “no allegory of Israeli life, though others will see it as such.” He quickly adds, “But that is the destiny of literature coming from a troubled part of the world.”

This slim volume is a series of loosely related short stories, each sparse and dark, depicting daily life and problems in the fictional northern town of Tel Ilan, a place hailed by its residents as “better than Provence,” the “Tuscany” of Israel. Oz describes that while usually his story ideas begin with a sense of characters, this novel began with a sense of place, in a dream. “I dreamt I was in one of those old Jewish villages, looking for somebody,” he says. “The village was completely deserted. And in the middle, strangers were looking for me, and I had to hide.”

In the eight fiction pieces that make up Scenes from Village Life, Oz aspires to touch on many subjects, the alliterated lists of emotions which have almost become a mantra for him: “Love, longing, loneliness, and loss; death, desire, desolation.”

“This book and this village are about a half-knowing state,” he says. “About old life.”

The characters who live in Tel Ilan are varied. The reader encounters a spinster doctor, awaiting her visiting ill nephew who will never come, in the story “Relations.” A real estate agent looking to purchase a villa in “Lost” visits the beautiful granddaughter of a man “who wrote long novels about the Holocaust, even though he had spent all his life in Tel Ilan.”

One is introduced to an “unhappy seventeen-year old” lusting after an older divorcee, the village librarian, determined to win her favor: “He waited for Ada Dvash to finish work...he preferred to stay in his room, reading or listening to music. His school friends enjoyed making noise, being surrounded by noise, whereas he preferred silence. That’s what he’d tell her this time. And she’d see for herself that he was different. Special.”

And then the couple who organizes community singing events, in memory of the young son who had committed suicide under his parents’ bed and was only discovered the next morning, after they had slept in it. And, in “Waiting,” published in The New Yorker several years ago, one meets the smooth-talking village mayor who waits for his disappeared wife, the kind of woman who “contained herself...but never forgot.”

Perhaps most memorable is “Digging,” the story from which Oz chose to read the most at the 92Y, in his measured staccato Hebrew. Oz artfully paints the tension brewing between a senile ex-Knesset member, the widowed daughter he lives with, and the Arab student lodger whom his daughter insists on helping. The old man insists that the Arab student is an anti-Semite, and while his daughter exclaims and asks what the student had done wrong, the old man responds, “‘He hasn’t done anything. He just doesn’t like us. That’s all. And why should he? I don’t like us much myself.’”

Later, in a rather brilliant dialogue between the old man and the student, the young man explains that he is writing a book: “‘I’m trying to write a book about you...and about us. A comparison.’”

The elderly Jew responds with a huff: “‘A comparison. What sort of a comparison?...To reveal our ugly face?’

“‘Not ugly, exactly. More like unhappy.’

“‘And how about your face? Isn’t it unhappy? Are you so pretty? Beyond reproach? Saintly and pure?’

“‘We’re unhappy too.’

“‘So there’s no difference between us? If that’s the case, why are you sitting here writing a comparison?’”

The irony, and subtle humor, is palpable, heavy with what Dan Friedman of The Forward calls a “profound sense of uncanny foreboding”, reminiscent of Kafka and of Elie Wiesel’s The Judgment. Friedman has pinpointed strong parallels – just like Kafka and Wiesel, Scenes from Village Life is heavy in allegory, more so than any other work of Oz’s. Which, as Oz himself explains at the 92Y reading, was a deliberate move on the author’s part, an attempt to create a place in which deeper themes, beyond culture or geography, can be explored. Because literature, for Oz, is above all that very village, anonymous and mundane, a meeting point that transcends human differences.

“Think of Chekhov, Faulkner, Marquez,” he says. “Remote places are what are most universal. Because universal, you see, is the opposite of international.”