Review: Scenes from Village Life

The prolific Amos Oz is bang on form with a disturbing collection of portraits of a small community in a changing Israel

By David Herman, July 15, 2011
Oz: powerful depiction of a small community riven with anxiety

Oz: powerful depiction of a small community riven with anxiety

By Amos Oz
Chatto & Windus, £12.99

There's a moment in Oz's new book of short stories when a woman comes into the village library and asks for a book by "the Israeli writer that everyone was talking about." There's a long waiting list: she might have to wait two months. "Two months?" she says. "In that time he'll have written another book."'

It's a good joke. Oz is a prolific writer. He has written more than 25 books since his first book of short stories appeared in 1965. His autobiography (though he resists the term), A Tale of Love and Darkness, is a masterpiece.

Nearly all the stories in Scenes from Village Life are set in an Israeli village that is, "old and sleepy, a hundred years old or more." Everywhere there is dilapidation and junk. Farms are "long-abandoned", cellars full of rubbish. In one story, Rachel and her elderly father live on an old farm: "The abandoned sheds and outbuildings filled up with junk and dust." Eldad Rubin's old house, The Ruin, "has a withdrawn air". Its yard is "full of thistles and rusting junk".

But the village is changing. Old smallholdings have become shops, boutiques and galleries selling art works and decorative toys to weekend visitors from the towns.

Those who knew the old village are living out their last years in their old family homes. What will become of these old, rambling houses? Nearly everyone fears their home will be taken away by someone else: their children, grandchildren, lawyers or estate agents. There is an air of menace, a sense that things could turn nasty, even violent.

This question of who owns the land and the houses has a political overtone. But, curiously, Arabs or Palestinians are rarely mentioned, except in the longest story, Digging, in which two characters, an old Zionist politician and a young Arab student helping out, both hear digging sounds at night, as if the foundations are being unearthed. Here, the politics of who has claims to the land, do come to the surface. The old Jew feels threatened by the young Arab. In a showdown, the Arab argues speaks of the unhappiness of Israeli Jews: "It comes from you. From inside. The unhappiness. It comes from deep inside you."'

All the characters are unhappy but in different ways. Some are lonely. Abandoned by their wives, mourning dead children, trapped in lives that have passed them by.

This is a dark book, with a dark vision of contemporary Israel. Only in one story do these lonely characters come together, to sing in a couple's home. And here, the question arises of Israeli military force.

The whole, rich, disturbing mixture makes one feel as if something dark is digging away at the foundations, something unnameable ready to emerge.

It is one of the most powerful books you will read about present-day Israel.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 11:45am, July 15 2011