Chasing utopia

Between Friends

Chasing utopia

In 1965, Amos Oz exploded onto the literary scene with a short story collection, Where the Jackals Howl. With the Israeli state still a relative newborn, and drawing lifeblood from his own experiences and observations, Oz offered a slant on the nation in microcosm, via the idealistic, ambitious and often all-too-judgemental dramas of kibbutz existence.

Now, almost half a century on, he comes full circle with another collection of kibbutz tales. Again, taking place during the late 1950s, these eight stories are less passionate than his early work, but more measured and refined, more reflective and accepting of the weakness inherent in human nature. They span the gamut of life in any trammelled society, touching on issues such as love, infidelity, duty, pettiness, cruelty, familial as well as communal obligations, and, most poignantly, the loneliness that divides and conquers even the most closely-connected hearts. Oz’s cast of characters have come together under certain Marxist dictates to find a better way of living. They are at once chasing utopia and hiding from the world. Memories fade slowly.

A gardener, with an obsession for the news and a terror of physical contact, strikes up a friendship with a lonely widow. A woman who has been abandoned by her husband starts receiving letters from the husband’s lover, not imploring forgiveness, but apparently seeking assurance that they haven’t made some terrible mistake. A teenage boy, recently arrived in the kibbutz and feeling isolated, goes to visit his ailing father in a mental hospital. The kibbutz comedian and gossip, secretly living a repressed life, breaks down in violent fashion when confronted with the relentless bullying suffered by his only son. In the magnificent title story, a middle-aged man doesn’t know how to respond when his 17-year-old daughter sets up home with his philandering friend.

Between Friends is arguably something new, a collection of stories, but so interlinked by theme, setting and its rolling cast that it boasts the sense, scope and unity of a novel. Even the individual stories, which unfurl in profoundly moving ways, possess a grandeur that suggests a larger scale. The writing, tight and delicate, is technically breathtaking. If Hemingway is credited with postulating literature’s ‘theory of omission’, the so-called iceberg theory, then Oz, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate and frequently cited as one of the world’s finest living writers, has elevated the technique to the level of art.

The result is peculiar and affecting, comic in moments, but with an insinuation of tragedy. Oz presents us with surfaces, and invites us to dig deeper. The history of a place and a people lives between these lines.

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