In his recently compiled collection of essays,Farther Away,Jonathan Franzen reminds us of the all-too-familiar guilt that attaches itself to literary fiction. Spend even a moderate amount of time immersed in it,to the exclusion of other presumably more important tasks,and you feel guilty; ignore it,and you feel guilty.
Amos Oz is among a clutch of novelists,however,on whose writing this neat and obviously exaggerated theory breaks down. Read Oz,the Israeli writer whose name surfaces with deserved regularity in advance of the announcement of the Nobel prize for literature each year as one of the possible choices,and there can be no guilt about your time having been inadequately spent.
You may,however,spend an inordinate amount of time trying to determine whether his latest book,Between Friends,is a novel or a collection of short stories. Each of the eight chapters about inhabitants of a particular kibbutz can be read as standalone stories; but in each of them we find characters from other stories turning up,sometimes in defining turns of the plot,sometimes just going about their tasks in the background. Novel or short stories,Id say it is the former,but would not quibble over the point too much. The fact that the question is so open to multiple answers is a comment on Ozs accomplishment.
The kibbutz of Ozs focus is negotiating changes as the founding socialist and,in a way,utopian vision comes against not just rising individualism in the course of a generation,but also questions about a patriarchal undercurrent in,say,how tasks are divided between female and male inhabitants. Or whether the practice of separating children from their parents into common dorms should be abandoned. As David Dagan,one of the kibbutzs founders and now its leading organiser,tells young Yotam,there needs to be higher purpose to the community than personal ambition,that each individual be mobilised to a cause.
Yotam is torn between taking up an uncles offer to fund his education in Italy,and therefore being expelled from the kibbutz,and biding his time doing duty on the kibbutz before getting its clearance to pursue further education in a field determined to be of use to the community. The time lag being imposed on Yotams education especially distresses his mother,and she counsels a less conciliatory solution than he appears to be ready for. Indeed,he seeks solitude to think in the nearby ruins of an Arab village destroyed by the Israeli army in the early years. Away from the kibbutz,he realises his predicament: were another kibbutznik to have made a request similar to his,he would have voted to deny permission. In this sobering landscape,however,all he wants is to remain among the ruins,his mind empty of thoughts,and to wait.
Loneliness is a condition practically all the characters in these stories must negotiate,each in his or her on way. As Yoav Carni,Kibbutz Yekhats first baby and proudly elected secretary,reflects elsewhere: Kibbutz society offered no remedies against loneliness. In fact,the very idea of a kibbutz denied the concept of loneliness. Or as he says in yet another appearance in another story: On the kibbutz its hard to know. Were all supposed to be friends,but only very few really are.
If at all.
Zvi Provizor,tender gardener to the kibbutz,handles loneliness by playing an energetic broadcaster of bad news. He obsessively tracks newspapers and radio broadcasts for fires,earthquakes,mishaps,and relays updates to anyone who passes by.
No one is looking in any of these stories to harm another,to shortchange a fellow traveler but it
is as if the cheerfully gung-ho spirit of getting
on with things acts as an inhibiting force in expressing themselves.
Teenager Moshe Yashar is a boarder at the kibbutz,so something of an outsider,and as he finds himself outside of the seemingly casual camaraderie of his peer group he wonders: Would he become one of them someday. He yearned for that day but was afraid of it too,and he also knew in his heart of hearts that it would never come.
Yet elsewhere,Zvi asks Moshe why he is going into town,What do they have there that we dont have here? Moshe chooses to say nothing instead of replying,Strangers.
In Ozs spare and politically resonant prose,the message appears to be that it is the unspoken word that may be more powerful.