March 6, 2012 by markstani
It is for others with a surer grasp of the subject to decide the extent to which Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz (pub. Chatto & Windus) is an allegory for the parlous, fragile state of modern Israel.
Certainly, there are broad hints in that direction: the characters who people the majority of Oz’s eight stories live tentative, uncertain lives; Tel Ilan, their rural village in question, itself seems to exist in a state of perpetual unease.
Yet conflict of the political kind is only once overtly addressed, in ‘Singing’, in which the story’s narrator expresses his ambivalence over the latest bombing raid, and the roar of fighter planes overhead is drowned out by a resolute and gutsy community choir.
Oz, it seems, is determined to illustrate the afflictions of his nation by much more delicate means.
‘Scenes From Village Life’ is a strange book in every respect, oozing general awkwardness, sprinkled with imponderables and actions devoid of answers. If, early in the book, it is so nuanced as to not so much miss a beat, as lack percussion entirely, it soon lures you in, like taking a walk in a new neighborhood which appears entirely unremarkable until you begin to scratch at its surface.
Many of Oz’s characters are gently propelled by the allure of abandonment: most comfortable curled up in abandoned water towers, left alone in dark cellars or drawn to dim, empty bedrooms with the stale scent of long-gone tragedy.
Their wider motives are left unexplained: the mysterious stranger who turns up on an old man’s porch and proceeds not only to cajole him into selling half his house, but to climb into bed with him and his ancient mother; the scratching, digging sounds from the cellar which torment a teacher and her ageing father; a wife’s unexplained departure; a tour of an old house’s subterranean passageways.
Oz’s prose is simple and achingly poetic. The sixth story, ‘Strangers’, starts: ‘It was evening. A bird called twice. What it meant there was no way of telling.’
In ‘Lost’, the narrator, a property prospector, takes a circuitous twilight walk towards a bleak old house for which he hopes to put in an offer:
A smallish package wrapped in brown paper and tied up with black cord was lying on a shady bench at the end of Tarpat Street. I paused and bent over to see what was written on it. There was nothing written on it. I picked it up cautiously and turned it over but the brown paper was smooth and unmarked. After a moment’s hesitation I decided not to open the package, but felt I ought to let someone know I had found it. I didn’t know whom I should tell. I held it in both my hands and it seemed heavier than its size would have suggested, heavier than a packet of books, as if it contained stones or metal. Now the object aroused my suspicion, and so I replaced it gently on the bench. I ought to have reported the discovery of a suspicious package to the police, but my mobile phone was on my desk at the office because I had only gone out for a short walk and didn’t want to be interrupted by my office business.
The package is never mentioned again. And in this mildly ghostly world, there are other, unexplained apparitions. It is a world of sad hearts, in which ‘the distance from pity to love was like the distance from the moon reflected in a puddle to the moon itself.’ Yet the community which Oz chronicles in these intriguing overlapping stories appears eerily content.
Only the last story shatters the soporific atmosphere: ‘In a Faraway Place at Another Time’ is a brief orgy of depravity set in a stinking, fetid swamp: is it what Tel Ilan has been, or will become? Like the rest of Oz’s fascinating collection, it poses plenty more questions than answers.