Scenes from Vil­lage Life

Amos Oz; Nicholas de Lange, trans.
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
The pas­sage of time leaves much unre­solved for the peo­ple of Tel Ilan, a cen­tu­ry-old pio­neer vil­lage in Israel. The town appears to have been regen­er­at­ed by new stores offer­ing Far East­ern fur­nish­ings, stalls sell­ing cheese and hon­ey and olives, and bou­tique winer­ies that attract week­end vis­i­tors. Yet the syn­a­gogue looks aban­doned, a mon­u­ment to the founders of the vil­lage is for­sak­en, hous­es have fall­en into dis­re­pair, and at night the jack­als howl and wild dogs bark.

A pal­pa­ble sense of empti­ness, regret, and loss cor­re­spond­ing­ly hov­ers over long-time res­i­dents in sev­en relat­ed sto­ries about Tel Ilan. A doc­tor weeps over failed con­nec­tions with her beloved nephew. A father is obsessed by the feel­ing that his own inflex­i­bil­i­ty led to the loss of his only son. Anoth­er man, aban­doned long ago by his wife, is estranged from his son. The town’s polit­i­cal­ly adept but emo­tion­al­ly obtuse may­or can’t com­pre­hend why his wife might leave him.

A beau­ti­ful­ly real­ized sto­ry called Singing” jux­ta­pos­es pri­vate despair with the opti­mism of old. Dozens of towns­peo­ple gath­er at a pri­vate home to sing togeth­er on a Fri­day night. As they revis­it the past through zemirot for Shab­bat, set­tings of Bia­lik and Rahel, Russ­ian tunes, and songs of the pio­neers and the Pal­mach, it is their present trou­bles that occu­py their minds. There is an inescapable sense that they, like the world of those old songs, have changed irrev­o­ca­bly.

One of the most vivid char­ac­ters in these sto­ries, an aged for­mer Knes­set mem­ber named Pesach Kedem (his last name can mean the past”), is a Com­mu­nist and a prophet. He bit­ter­ly recalls doc­tri­nal betray­als by fel­low Par­ty mem­bers 60 years before, speak­ing in Bib­li­cal lan­guage of the prin­ci­ples they sold for a mess of pot­tage on every high hill and under every green tree.” He mourns the destruc­tion of our hearts,” and laments that now every­one is a stranger to every­one else. Even the stars in the sky are alien to one anoth­er.”

In this heart­break­ing­ly per­cep­tive work Amos Oz shows how such sor­row, born equal­ly of the actions of oth­ers and one’s own mis­takes, is inescapably part of the human con­di­tion. As in all great fic­tion, he finds larg­er truths in the par­tic­u­lars of lived expe­ri­ence and con­veys them with deep sym­pa­thy. (Nicholas de Lange also has an extra­or­di­nary instinct for le mot juste in his superb trans­la­tion.) Oz has excelled him­self in this unflinch­ing, stun­ning, indeli­ble work.

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