"Scenes from Village Life" by Amos Oz [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz translated by Nicholas de Lange
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Why This Book Should Win: Haunting stories told with precision prose.
Today’s post is by Suzanne Zweizig, a poet/editor/translator living in Washington D.C.
Things get weird quickly in Amos Oz’s collection of linked stories, Scenes from Village Life. From the first story, Oz turns the “creepy” knob so gradually yet inevitably upward from beginning to end that what starts off as a fairly pleasant setting (the Israel version of “Tuscany!,” one character gushes) with seemingly innocuous characters ends up in a place so taboo that it disquiets and dissettles for the rest of the collection. One cannot help but turn the pages of subsequent stories under a combined sense of fascination and doom, not knowing quite where one will end up in such an author’s hands. I would not be a spoiler by saying that it usually s in a psychologically very uncomfortable space.
The thing is, many of these characters, like us, didn’t mean to go where they end up. Arieh Zelnik, in the first story, meant to tell the stranger on his porch that his “visit was now over.” Instead he tells him to wait outside and then makes no objection as the stranger follows him inside. Same with Yossi Sasson, in “Lost,” who visits the house of a famous, but now-deceased, author in the village, hoping to persuade his widow to sell the house. When the author’s young daughter answers the door and says that her mother is not home, Yossi makes up his mind “to thank her, take my leave, and come back another day.” Instead, “his feet followed her into the house of their own accord.” We don’t know exactly where Yossi’s feet are going to take him, but having already accompanied several of Oz’s characters as they are pushed (pulled?) ahead by some strange compulsion, we know, as much as any horror film audience does, to squirm and shout at Yossi to turn back. Indeed, he should have.
But there is no going backwards in these stories. There is only going ahead, towards the compulsion, driven on by some desire to know. To know what? Oz is enough of a story-teller, and a wise enough soul, not to let us off the hook of the question. This book is full of lost people, searching, and futile explorations: an aunt for her nephew who never arrives on the bus; the town mayor for his wife who disappears one Sabbath eve leaving only a cryptic note “Don’t worry about me”; the high school English teacher for the source of the strange nocturnal digging sound beneath her house. These searches take place with flashlight in hand, as night has arrived or is falling, or in locked or underground spaces that are usually “off limits” in a normal, well-lit world.
As universal and elemental as these psychological tales are, however, one cannot read this book without seeing it, at least to some degree, in the context of the “situation,” a comparison that Oz, with his consummate skill and subtlety, both suggests and does not belabor. Set in a small fictional town of Tel Ilan (a la Sherman Anderson’s Winnesborg, Ohio) in the north of Israel, these stories play out in a backdrop that is peppered with references to Israel’s history. Its characters wander incessantly along the town’s “Founder Street,” and “Memorial Garden” and the village’s famous deceased author wrote voluminous novels about the Holocaust that several characters, including his daughter, confess (almost heretically) to neither liking nor reading.
The book is rife with intergenerational tension, and aged parents are neither wholly beloved nor revered. In “Digging,” the longest story of the collection, and, dare I say its set piece (when I heard Oz read from this collection last spring, he chose this story), Oz creates a strange domestic triangle between a middle-age widow, her a cantankerous, almost-senile elderly father—a former Minister in the Knesset who harrumphs around, despising everyone, predicting gloom, lashing out alternately at Mickey the vet whom he fears has designs on his daughter and his former colleagues who betrayed his party’s ideals—and an Arab student who lives in one of the outbuildings doing chores in exchange for his board and taking notes for a comparative study “about you” (Israelis) and “about us” (Arabs). “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul,” the student says, when pressed by the father to summarize the findings of his research.
There is much to ponder in these stories and Oz, while providing much suggestive layering, never makes a false step into allegory or heavy symbolism. Throughout the collection, his prose is spot-on: masterful, able to create a vivid character with a few spare lines and translated beautifully by his long-time translator Nicholas de Lange. The stories are slim, spare, taking you to places you never meant to go, but won’t be able to stop thinking about.