Scenes from Village Life

  • Amos Oz
  • Houghton Mifflin
  • 182 pp.

In these linked stories, decent people in an Israeli town go about their daily routines as hidden currents quietly undermine the foundations of their lives.

Reviewed by Laura Kart Noell

Scenes from Village Life, a new collection of linked short stories from the celebrated Israeli writer Amos Oz, is set in Tel Ilan, a fictional village not too far from Tel Aviv. In one vignette, the town librarian, Ada Dvash, overhears a woman criticize a writer for penning “the same book over and over again with small changes.” In response, Ada observes: “There are some subjects and motifs that a writer comes back to again and again because apparently they come from the root of his being.”

Born in 1938, Oz is a Zionist and an Israeli peace advocate who has produced more than 20 works of fiction, nonfiction and children’s stories in his long career. In those works, Oz himself returns over and over again to recurrent themes, images and characters that seem to well up “from the root of his being.” Even the word tel in the name of his fictional town, which describes an unexcavated mound covering the remains of earlier settlements, evokes images of something underground, the hidden strata of the past that may or may not be brought to light.

In Tel Ilan, Oz has created a village that, perhaps like Israel itself, is a victim of its success. The villagers lead physically comfortable lives in well-appointed homes, enjoy good health and health care, have plenty to eat and all the amenities available in modern affluent nations. Yet in story after story, a darkness at the core, a feeling of something missing or absent, undermines the apparently placid surface of routine life. As the villagers go about their daily activities, walking along Synagogue Street or through the Memorial Garden, making meals and coffee — lots of coffee — meeting friends and acquaintances, caring for an aging parent or tending to the town’s business in the village hall, the same villagers find themselves alienated from one another, sense the crumbling foundation beneath their town and seek some ill-defined, unreachable but terribly important goal.

The town is losing its authenticity and is becoming a kitschy tourist spot for wealthy weekenders from Tel Aviv. Two of the stories involve real-estate investors with grand dreams of profit through demolition. In the first story, “Heirs,” a physically unprepossessing but oddly menacing Wolff Maftsir, who looks like he “had begun to collapse inward and shrink inside his skin,” insinuates himself into the home of Arieh Zelnik and his 90-year-old mother. Maftsir praises the beauty of the town and the house even as he contaminates it.

In the story “Lost,” real-estate agent Yossi Sasson plans to buy “The Ruin,” a rambling old maze of a house inhabited by the widow of a respected writer of Holocaust fiction, pull it down and replace it with yet another McVilla, one of the neatly landscaped weekend retreats that have been gradually replacing the homes in town.  “Soon the village won’t be a village anymore; it’ll turn into a sort of summer resort.”

While the weekenders threaten the identity of the village, the characters featured in the stories are long established residents of Tel Ilan who know one another. The main character in one story may have a cameo in another, yet the inhabitants of the town are curiously isolated and estranged. Intimate relationships fail inexplicably. Marriages dissolve. Memories of abortions, stillbirths and suicides run through the village like submerged poison streams. Middle-aged children who dutifully care for their aged parents do so out of a sense of obligation rather than affection, while their whole lives and community are being undermined.

A schoolteacher named Rachel Franco, who cares for her cantankerous old father and provides living space for Adel, a young Arab man, seems like a model villager, yet she cannot hear the sounds of digging that emanate from the foundation of her house. The old man, a relic of the early years of Jewish settlement and Israeli government, believes Adel “burrows under our house ... because he simply doesn’t like us. Why should he? What for? Because of all our villainy, our cruelty, our arrogance? And our hypocrisy?” Adel proves not to be the source of the sounds, which nevertheless persist and cannot be ignored.

Although they are linked, these Scenes from Village Life do not create a coherent narrative. Like the characters, the stories are disconnected. Details that appear in one story are incompatible with details in another. Yossi Sasson, for example, seems to get irrevocably lost in his pursuit of the “The Ruin,” yet he reappears in a later story. The stories seem to have been written to be published separately, as background details that are established in the first few stories are repeated, unnecessarily for anyone who reads them consecutively.

The fifth story, “Waiting,” begins: “Tel Ilan, a pioneer village, already a century old, was surrounded by fields and orchards,” information about the town that has been established in several stories. Other repetitions seem clumsy and redundant rather than necessary for emphasis or to develop a theme. In “Strangers,” the story set in the town’s small library, the harsh or dazzling or glaring “white neon lighting” is mentioned 10 times with so little variation in phrasing that the effect becomes that of an annoying tic, an effect that is compounded by the apparently mistaken choice of the word “neon” when fluorescent would be more accurate. Other repetitions that recur from story to story bring to mind the complaints of the library patron who wearies of reading “the same book over and over again” and make the reader long for the presence of a thoughtful editor.

Despite these flaws, the stories make compelling reading. Realistic in detail, each story also hums with a spiritual electricity, an undercurrent that might animate a golem. Each of the seven realistic stories also has an allegorical dimension reflecting the politics and the state of modern Israel, while the last story, “In a Faraway Place at Another Time,” is pure allegory.

In his personal commitment to Zionism and peace, Oz shows himself to be a man who loves his country and fears for it. Both those feelings come through in these stories of decent people going about their daily routines while darkness encroaches and hidden currents undermine the foundations of their lives.

Laura Kart Noell is a bibliophile, a student of world myth and a former member of the English faculty at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught, by conservative estimate, somewhere between seven and eight thousand students.

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