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Amos Oz, Approaching 70, Sees Israel with a Bird’s-Eye View

Amos Oz, Approaching 70, Sees Israel with a Bird’s-Eye View

April 20, 2009

Social Sciences & Humanities

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will pay tribute to its Professor Emeritus Amos Oz with a birthday dinner and musical celebration of his novel, The Same Sea, on May 26, 2009 during the 39th Annual Board of Governors Meeting.

ARAD, Israel — For four decades Amos Oz has been known in Israel and abroad for two things, his fervently liberal politics and his intimately observed fiction. He has always insisted that they are distinct, and so they seem.

His novels and stories are not allegories on the Palestinian conflict but deeply human tales of ambiguity and sadness. His political essays, meanwhile, make their point with complete transparency.

One way he marks the separation between the two forms of writing is by using two kinds of pen, one blue, the other black, that sit on his desk in the book-lined study of his home in this quiet desert town.

“I never mix them up,” he says of the pens. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories.”

Now, as Israel prepares to mark his 70th birthday with a three-day festival in Arad and an academic conference at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, both in May, and with his latest novella coming out in English translation along with a new selection of translated fiction and nonfiction called The Amos Oz Reader, he offers a way of viewing his two kinds of writing through a single lens.

Both usher from the same source, he says — empathy. Both are about imagining the other.

“That’s what I do for a living,” he noted in his soft-spoken and precise English as he took a walk late one recent afternoon, the pink-tinged Arava desert and Dead Sea glistening on the horizon.

“I get up in the morning, I drink a cup of coffee, I sit down at my desk and I start to ask myself: ‘What if I were him? What if I were her? How would I feel? What would I say? How would I react?’ “

Mr. Oz, whose humor is as dry as the climate, is one of Israel’s most esteemed authors — along with A. B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld and David Grossman — and his new novella, Rhyming Life and Death, is a somewhat brutal look at the life and sensibility of a literary celebrity.

The main character, known simply as the Author, is full of forced camaraderie for minor cultural figures, insincere flattery for vulnerable women and false modesty to those who admire him. But he has an exceptional eye for narrative detail and an almost uncontrolled penchant for invention.

No sooner does a waitress bring him coffee than he creates her history, filled with love and loss. In the end the Author evokes a surprising sympathy; his journey is compulsive and joyless yet somehow vital.

Mr. Oz denies that the character is in any way autobiographical, although in a 1990 newspaper interview in Haaretz, he made this point about himself: “There’s always a part of me that’s uninvolved, that sits on the sidelines and observes. Sometimes it looks on from the distance, almost hostile. Very chilly.”

The new book raises, both explicitly and implicitly, the point of writing fiction, suggesting that it is less a noble endeavor than a drive, like sex and dreaming.

“The need to tell a story is something elemental, primeval,” Mr. Oz added when the question was raised.

But that doesn’t make it simple, especially in a place like Israel. As he noted, “It is not easy to write novels and stories in the heart of a political drama.”

It is also not easy to know what to do about the tangled drama itself, although Mr. Oz has had a very firm conviction about it for a very long time. It came, he said, from asking those questions that he does every morning.

In June of 1967, days after what Israelis call the Six-Day War ended, he walked the freshly captured streets of East Jerusalem, still in uniform. Most of his countrymen viewed the moment as a historic culmination of Jewish longing and destiny.

He saw it quite differently. Although he was a native of West Jerusalem, and his parents, who had fled Europe, were right-wing nationalists, he could not rejoice because he kept asking himself how he would feel in the place of the Palestinians living there.

“I tried my hardest to feel in East Jerusalem like a man who has driven out his enemies and recovered his ancestral inheritance,” he wrote in a 1968 essay included in the new collection. “But I couldn’t.”

His idea then was radical: Israel should get out of the areas it won, and the Palestinians should build their own state there. As he recalled the other day, “When my friends and I started advocating a two-state solution in 1967, there were so very few of us that we could conduct our national assembly inside a public telephone box.”

The approach today is mainstream; the Obama administration says it is firmly pursuing it, although it is losing favor among Israelis and Palestinians as both have come to view the other as insincere and warlike.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza a few months ago, undertaken to stop Hamas rockets from being fired at Israeli towns not far from this one, only added to that mutual mistrust.

Mr. Oz favored the attack as an appropriate response to the rockets but wanted it called off within a few days rather than the three weeks it lasted. Meanwhile, he says, he has been saddened by some of the behavior of Israeli soldiers in Gaza.

“I heard from soldiers who were in Gaza who said that Israel pushed its red lines way away from where they were,” he said, noting that this was hardly the first time the army faced guerrilla warfare.

“In 1967 Israelis fought in heavily populated urban areas and there were Jordanian snipers hiding behind civilian populations. Nonetheless no streets were bulldozed to the ground.”

The new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is well to the right of Mr. Oz. It has not committed itself to two states and says it will never share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Mr. Oz holds out only modest hope that the government might surprise him.

Being an Israeli at 70, he noted, is like being an American who is 250 years old. He was there for his country’s birth 61 years ago.

“I saw the Boston Tea Party with my own eyes,” he said with a twinkle. “I personally knew George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.”