Reinventing Israel in Argentina
Every year, of the 75,000 young Israelis who complete their military service, it is estimated that around one third leave everything behind to go backpacking. The nomadic ramble through Southeast Asia and South America in that indeterminate period between youth and adulthood is hardly unique to Israel, but it takes on its own characteristics at the end of mandatory service — a break from order and a getaway from the confines of a small state under siege.
While one can escape Israel, one cannot escape Israeliness. On the road, for linguistic, cultural and emotional reasons, Israeli backpackers have come to constitute their own community. Along the so-called “hummus trail,” as Dor Glick reported for Ha’aretz, there has built up “a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course.”
While Israeli backpackers have been criticized for showing “flagrant disregard for local customs,” the hummus trail is a natural expression both of belonging to a distinctive identity and the wish for the familiar and familial in most unfamiliar surroundings. Even thousands of miles from Tel Aviv and Haifa, Israelis cannot help but seek out and find one another.
Omri Herzog has noted that, in Israeli literature, there is a place for the journey of self-determination and self-discovery. “There, in the exotic expanses of the backpacker world, Israeli heroes may deal with repressed traumas and inadequate concepts of self,” he writes. “They can understand and forgive their families, loved ones and sometimes also themselves; against the background of bustling foreign cities and remote villages they find the strength to love, rehabilitate themselves and connect to those they have left behind.”
The Author as Therapist for her Characters
Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.
Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.
After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”
Rather, the therapy is for the characters and also those who pick up her novels and read them. “The job of literature is to change the reader’s soul,” Shalev said. “I don’t want my readers just to enjoy themselves. I want them to go through some sort of experience that might change themselves.” Her previous novels — “Love Life,” “Husband and Wife” and “Thera” — have dealt with lust and romance, relationships, the trials and strains of marriage, and divorce.
Amos Oz Returns to the Kibbutz
“NO, I DO NOT believe there is any such thing as a ‘kibbutz literature,” Oz wrote in his 1974 essay, The Kibbutz at the Present Time. “There are poems and books that have a kibbutz setting, and there are poets and writers who live in a kibbutz, but the kibbutz has not inspired any ‘mutation’ of Hebrew literature.” Perhaps this is true, but as the kibbutz is a unique utopian, ideological and social experiment with its own characteristics, tragedies and charms, stories set in a kibbutz occupy a unique literary category. With his new novel-in-stories, Between Friends, Amos Oz has returned to the kibbutz, although one could argue he never really left. Even when set elsewhere, his stories are haunted by the parochial and familial atmosphere of the kibbutz. His characters, on and off the kibbutz, struggle for individuality and self-expression, experience restlessness, and confront the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams.
Considered one of the three tenors of Israeli literature alongside David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua (who are as much prophets and social critics as novelists), Oz began his career writing stories about the kibbutz. A resident and member of Kibbutz Hulda on Israel’s coastal plain from the age of 15 until he moved to Arad out in the desert in 1986, Oz completedWhere the Jackals Howl and his first novel Elsewhere, Perhaps on the one day off per week he was permitted for writing (he worked Saturdays in the dining hall as recompense).
Between Friends brings Oz full-circle, dragging him back to the period between the Wars of Independence and the Six-Day War, the earliest years of statehood when the kibbutz was a younger, stronger, and more nakedly ideological institution than it is today. Set on his imagined Kibbutz Yekhat, Oz explores through a series of interwoven vignettes the disagreements, disappointments, and disillusionment felt in a compact and insular community where everybody lives on top of one another, there are no strangers, and gossip and intrigue abound.
The kibbutz was borne out of a fantasy of those who, as Oz once wrote, “lost their religious faith and abandoned the religious commandments but they had not given up their devotion and drive and their thirst for the absolute” — immigrants from Europe and North America who gave up the Talmud and took up Marx. By turning over the soil, by planting trees and building homes, schools and factories, by creating a more communal and equitable society, the founders of the kibbutzim dreamt of becoming “the vanguard of a worldwide transformation.” As the product of a dream, however, the kibbutz was bound to disappoint. The socialism of the kibbutz did not account for human nature — as Oz puts it, “‘Life’ burst through with its infinite complexity that shatters the most acute and rounded and all-encompassing of ideologies.” There was depression, despondency, and jealously among the kibbutznikim. Some didn’t make it and took leave for an easier, larger life beyond the boundaries of the kibbutz, and the generations quarrelled with one another over the future of the experiment.
Martin Amis’ new novel
I noticed something at the bottom of Martin Amis’ new essay in The New York Times on Philip Roth, that his upcoming novel has a name: The Zone of Interest.
I had known for some time that he was working on a novel about the Holocaust, his second on the subject if you include the most excellent Time’s Arrow — my favourite Amis novel, as it goes. But I was not aware of the title. Google informs me that this is slightly old news by now. In the FT in May, the structure of the thing was outlined, at least:
The new novel is set in an unnamed Auschwitz. Amis points out that there was a “whole other stratum in Auschwitz that consisted of wives of SS officers, including the commandant, and they had quite a well-developed social life – they had theatre and thés dansants … ”
The genesis of the work was what he calls a donné, a bolt from the blue “where a little throb goes through you and you think, this is the start of something I can sit down and write. It was a very counter-intuitive one. It was imagining love at first sight at Auschwitz.” The woman involved is the wife of the camp commandant; the man is the nephew of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, who, says Amis, is a sort of liaison officer and “very much against the regime”.
There are three narrators: the commandant, the nephew and a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish units forced to help with the disposal of gas chamber victims.
The snubbing of Amos Oz continues
— Nobelprize_org (@Nobelprize_org)
And Amos Oz is passed over for another year. It’s a shande. One assumes that, one day, Amos Oz and David Grossman and Philip Roth and someone from the Amis/McEwan/Ishiguro generation of great English novelists will win the Nobel. Not now. Not yet.
And Munro’s reaction runs only second to Doris Lessing’s:
Review: “Almost English”, by Charlotte Mendelson
Laura and Marina are strangers. Their home in London is an island with a foreign culture, a cramped flat in Bayswater in which they are themselves outsiders. Their keepers — Laura’s mother-in-law, Marina’s grandmother, and her two sisters — are Hungarian, and speak with a heavily-accented English. Dar-link, they say. Von-darefool. Tair-ible. They host parties where cold sour-cherry soup, stuffed cabbage, and a carp suspended in jelly are served, and the guests have coiffed hair and wear faux-fox.
This was it: the future. It would feature cheery refectory meals beside tall friendly English girls with welcoming families; stimulating lessons in well-equipped Victorian laboratories; handsome boys writing her sonnets beneath historic oak trees. Soon it would not matter that she could neither hurdle nor paint nor sing, for at Combe she would blossom and become herself.Marina doesn’t fit in outside the home, either. A boarding student at Combe, a stereotypical English public school — “Cricket pavilions, and midnight feasts, and Gothic stone. Oh yes.” — she initially had dreams of reinvention. “She would have to change her old self. She needed class. She spent the summer preparing.” She read “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and “Billy Bunter” as one might a textbook, and tore out pages from old issues of the Tatler:
This was it: the future. It would feature cheery refectory meals beside tall friendly English girls with welcoming families; stimulating lessons in well-equipped Victorian laboratories; handsome boys writing her sonnets beneath historic oak trees. Soon it would not matter that she could neither hurdle nor paint nor sing, for at Combe she would blossom and become herself.
“And even when she had waved her family goodbye on the terrible first day, she had not realised how much worse it would become.” Marina soon finds herself lonely and isolated, her visions of transformation dashed, and after every half term she seriously contemplates never going back. Marina is, as the title of Charlotte Mendelson’s Booker-longlisted new novel would have it, “Almost English,” almost Hungarian, neither here or there, not fully of either world.
Review: A Tale of Love and Darkness
When Amos Oz was eight, he was a witness to the birth of a new nation.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine, thus allowing for the possibility of a Jewish state there. As Oz describes in his poetic, wandering memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, it was after midnight when on Amos Street, his “faraway street on the edge of Kerem Avraham in northern Jerusalem,” shouts first of terror then of unadulterated joy “tore through the darkness and the buildings and trees”. Oz, who had been listening to the vote on the radio, ran out into the throng and sat upon his father’s shoulders as they danced into the night, singing Zionist songs and weeping at the prospect of Israel’s rebirth.
At around three or four in the morning, Oz crawled into bed fully dressed. His father lay beside him, and proceeded to tell him of life in the old country, how in Odessa and Vilna he and his brother were bullied, harassed, and attacked. Henceforth, Oz’s father said to him in the dimness, “‘From the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever.’” This is the only time in Oz’s life, not even when his mother passed, that he saw his father cry.
Then, at seven o’clock on November 30, just three hours after all of Jewish Jerusalem had emptied to celebrate partition, shots were fired at a Jewish ambulance that was transiting through an Arab neighbourhood. What commenced was what amounted to a civil war, running in the months between the UN vote and Israel’s declaration of independence. Jerusalem became cut off from Tel Aviv: the schools closed; food and oil was rationed; and Oz recollects the stone houses in Kerem Avraham shaking as the shells landed around them.