Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:
“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”
The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents. There is, for example, Gili Steiner, a childless doctor who pines for a visit from her nephew; or Pesach Kedem, a bitter, aged former Knesset member who lives with his widowed daughter and their Arab student boarder, and who imagines he hears digging under the house at night. There is Yossi Sasson, the real estate agent who plans to buy, raze, and replace with a pricy villa the ramshackle house of a dead Holocaust novelist, but who falls for the temptations of the novelist’s granddaughter; and teenaged Kobi Ezra, son of the village grocer, who conceives what he believes to be an unrequited love for Ada Dvash, the 30-year-old divorcée who runs both the village’s often empty post office and its small lending library.
Oz begins each piece straightforwardly, but rather than—as in the typical short story—concluding it with the satisfying sense of a mystery solved or a musical composition that ends on just the right note, he more often introduces a sudden twist that jolts the piece in an unexpected direction and suggests that the deepest mysteries are those that exist within human beings, ones that can rarely if ever be truly understood, let alone resolved.
Take “Heirs,” the book’s opening piece, in which Arieh Zelnik is interrupted at home by Wolff Maftsir, a lawyer who claims an obscure kinship with the Zelnik family and offers, conspiratorially, to assist Arieh in getting his elderly mother to relinquish ownership of the house Arieh shares with her. Although repeatedly rebuffed by Arieh, Maftsir nevertheless gains access to the bedroom where the mother is napping, and the piece ends with this curious bit of business:
[Maftsir] bent over and kissed her twice, a long kiss on either cheek, and then kissed her again on the forehead. The old lady opened her cloudy eyes, drew a skeletal hand from under the blanket and stroked Wolff Maftsir’s head, murmuring something or other and pulling his head toward her with both hands. In response, he bent closer, took off his shoes, kissed her toothless mouth and lay down at her side, pulling at the blanket to cover them both. . . .
Arieh Zelnik hesitated for a moment or two, and looked out of the open window at a tumbledown farm shed and a dusty cypress tree up which an orange bougainvillea climbed with flaming fingers. Walking around the double bed, he closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtains, and as he did so he unbuttoned his shirt, then undid his belt, removed his shoes, undressed and got into bed next to his old mother.
This could be taken as a hallucinatory portrayal of the irresistible predatoriness of lawyers, but instead it seems more pleasurable to take it at face value in all its bizarrerie. Not every piece in Scenes from Village Life is quite this strange, but the general rule still holds: Oz convinces us to accept his characters just as they are, not asking us to fathom their depths but simply to marvel at their complexity. Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society—a shift that arguably makes the entire book replicate the quirky structure of most of the individual pieces within it—Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.
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