Life & Culture

Amos Oz: 'When it’s OK to join the boycott'

When Amos Oz sits down to write at his desk in the study, he does not use a computer. Rather, he has two pens


When Amos Oz sits down to write at his desk in the study of his Arad home, he does not use a computer. Rather, he has two pens — a black one and a blue one. Each has a different function, he says.

“I use one pen to tell stories and the other to tell the government to go to hell.”

He has been using both pens to good effect recently. Sitting on the table at the London offices of his publisher are two books, presumably each written with a different pen. One is his novel, Scenes From Village Life, just published in paperback — a look into the private unhappiness of the inhabitants of a small town in Israel.

The other is How to Cure a Fanatic — an analysis into and a response to the fanaticism facing the world.The good news is that Oz, arguably Israel’s greatest novelist, feels that he knows the cure to fanaticism. The bad news is that the medicine is anathema to fanatics. He says:

“I’ve never seen a fanatic with a sense of humour. Neither have I seen anyone with a sense of humour become a fanatic, unless he or she lost their sense of humour over something”

The conflict between Jews and Palestinians is 'a clash between right and right'

Oz adds that fanatics also lack imagination, particularly the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And also curiosity, which is to him a moral quality.

“I think a curious person is a better person than someone who is not curious,” he says.

Of course, all the qualities which militate against fanaticism are the very ones which make for a good novelist — something which is not lost on Oz. “Novelists might be fanatical about their work but I don’t think the fanatic could become a good novelist.

To illustrate his point, Oz describes a typical working day for him. “Every morning I wake up at 5am and take a brisk half-hour or 40-minute walk in the desert. Then I sit myself at my desk and start asking myself how I would feel if I was that person or this person. What would I feel? What would I wear? What would I eat?”

This, he feels, is the antithesis of the fanaticism which has developed on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he maintains that both sides of the dispute are attempting to turn their enmity into a religious war, it is nothing more than an argument over real estate.

Oz, who was in London this week to receive a lifetime achievement award from the New Israel Fund, explains: “The Palestinians are in Palestine for the same reason that the Norwegians are in Norway and the Dutch are in Holland. It is their land. They have no other land. Israeli Jews are in Israel for the same reason. They have no other land either. It’s a tragic clash between right and right.”

Oz, who is never short of an analogy, considers that there remains only one possible solution — a divorce between the warring parties.

“The marriage has broken down and the couple is living in a small house. But this is a funny divorce because the divorcing couple are definitely going to be staying under the same roof, so you have to decide who gets which bedroom, who gets the living room, what special arrangements to be made about the kitchen and the bathroom.

"It’s complicated but infinitely better than the present domination and submission, repression and resistance. We need to learn to live side by side as neighbours.”

This is not to say that Oz, despite preaching negotiation and compromise, is immune to the passions of the region himself. He was born and brought up in Jerusalem and he has an appetite for the whole city, for his ancestral land and the holy places, but he realises that he cannot have them to himself, not if he wants peace too.

Ten years have passed since he delivered the lectures on which How to Cure a Fanatic are based, and although, if anything, attitudes have hardened during this period, Oz remains optimistic that one day a settlement will be agreed.

“There is simply no alternative. No one has anywhere to go. I don’t know how much innocent blood will be shed. I never belittle the zeal of the fanatics or the stupidity of the governments on both sides.

"If I could use another metaphor I would say the patient — both Israeli and Palestinian — is ready for surgery but the doctors are cowards. Both Netanyahu and Abbas know the solution, give or take a couple of miles here or there. So they both have the solution but they don’t have the courage to implement it.”

Born in 1939, Oz was there at the birth of his nation and he has participated in the national debate since he was old enough to do so. While he celebrates what he calls the “cultural golden age” that his country is living through, he is sad about what he describes as the “corrupting influence of the occupation”.

Much as he detests the continuing Israeli military rule over what he describes as Palestinian land, he does not think blanket boycotts are the answer.

“I don’t believe in them, especially when it comes to a divided country like Israel. If you boycott Israeli academia, you are boycotting one of the most doveish institutions in Israel. Moreover, the boycott hardens Israeli resistance. Israelis tend to think that the whole world is against us anyway.”

His solution is to distinguish between Israel and the territories: “I myself boycott the products of the Jewish settlements of the West Bank because I think they are on occupied land. They live where they shouldn’t be living. But a blanket boycott of the whole of Israel is both a moral and a tactical mistake.”

Oz has espoused leftish political views since the age of 14, when he left his home in Jerusalem for a new life on Kibbutz Hulda, in central Israel. His depressive mother had taken her own life two years previously and the young Oz took out his grief on his father.

“I very well remember at that age I decided to become everything that my father was not. He was a right-wing intellectual, so I decided to become a left-wing tractor driver. He was a bookish man, so I decided to become an unbookish man. He was a short man and I decided to be a tall man. I did not succeed with that one,” he laughs, with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

He adds: “Like many rebellions, mine went half, if not full circle. Here I am sitting in a room full of books, writing still more books, which is exactly what my father wanted for me. I am aware of the irony of the situation.”

He dates his storytelling back to long, boring afternoons out with his parents. Oz, an only son, would be dragged to cafes as a five-year-old.

“They held very long conversations with their friends and they promised that if I kept quiet they would buy me ice-cream at the end. I had to keep quiet for a very long time because they conducted their conversations with their friends for 77 hours or so.

"So in order not to die of boredom, I used to spy on the other customers. I would overhear snatches of conversation, study the body language, study the shoes — the shoes always tell me things — and I would invent stories about these people.

"That’s how I became a writer. I highly recommend this for everyone, when you’re waiting in a dentist’s waiting room or at the airport. It’s a fascinating pastime and you get ice-cream at the end.”

Oz, originally Amos Klausner, renamed himself as a kibbutznik. Oz means “strength” in Hebrew, and lacking physical strength, he chose the name out of a misplaced sense of optimism.

By the time he reached his twenties, he felt it was his destiny to write and applied for one day a week free of kibbutz duties in which to do so. The kibbutz committee was bemused. Who were they to decide who was a real artist? And besides, someone had to milk the cows. However they relented, and eventually, given the stream of income Oz’s books began to generate for the kibbutz, they allowed him three days a week in which to write.

Oz feels the kibbutz itself was his university. “I tend to think that every great literature is provincial. Chekhov, Garcia-Marquez, Faulkner and others all tend to write about small places.

"I lived for 30 years of my life in a very small village of 500 people, but I learned so much about those 500 people. It was an education in human nature. I knew all the secrets and the gossip, I knew who was doing what with whom. If I had travelled 10 times around the world I still wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about people as I did in those 30 years.”

Although, he has spent much time studying human behaviour, his characters are not based on real people. In fact, he does not construct novels in the traditional way. Rather, he collects groups of characters.

“For me, a story always begins with a character or a bunch of characters. I have them in my head for a long time without writing anything. The moment these characters start doing things to each other, this is when the plot starts.”

It can be a stop-start process. Oz recalls heading for the communal dining room on the kibbutz having written only four sentences that morning.

“On my right would be sitting a man who milked 200 cows that morning and on my left would sit someone else who ploughed 50 acres. And all I did was write three sentences. What have I done to deserve my lunch, I thought to myself.

"Then I developed a philosophy. I was like a shopkeeper. I would always open for business in the morning. If I had customers, it was a good day; if I didn’t have customers, it was a bad day, but I would still be doing my job by sitting and waiting.”

He is proof that sitting and waiting can pay off. He has 17 works of fiction published in English and a new novel, Between Friends, came out in Israel this year. Like his first, Where the Jackals Howl, it is set on a kibbutz.

For the first time in many years Oz has re-read his first book to see how it compares with his most recent writing.

“My recent work is much more compassionate, much more forgiving. Where the Jackals Howl is a book about strong urges, subterranean passions, whereas this latest book is more of human comedy about love, loss, loneliness, desolation, death and desire. The great but simple things in life.”

He plans to spend many more hours sitting at his desk with his black and blue pens, waiting for the material to come to him. He sees no reason to stop as long as his mind remains clear enough to write. His motivation remains constant.

That twinkle appears in his eye again, accompanied this time by a boyish grin. “Ever since I was a five-year-old boy I was inventing little stories to tell my friends. I did it to impress the girls. Maybe that is still what I’m doing to this very day — trying to impress a lot of girls.”

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