"Everybody comes from somewhere." An Interview with Writer Amos Oz

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This past summer, I bought a plane ticket to Israel with no intention other than to record my observations of a country that seemed so defined by conflict. I spent my first month trying my hand at in-the-trenches war reporting, scurrying back and forth between the West Bank and my apartment in Jerusalem. But, the romantic veneer of the protracted, hyperbolized Israeli-Palestinian melodrama quickly revealed itself as just that—a romantic veneer, characterized much more by tragically mundane, day-to-day background noise than by ducking into bunkers and dodging bullets. My focus shifted to the effect of such background noise on the collective Israeli psyche. Consequently, I turned to Israeli literature, which came into being along side Israel and grew up under the exact same circumstances. Who better to speak with about such a thing—the simultaneous emergence of a nation and a literature—than Amos Oz, the progenitor of modern Hebrew storytelling, still presiding ever so vigilantly over his domain?

Born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem in 1939 to Russian scholars who had emigrated in the early 1920s, Oz spent his early childhood witnessing the British Mandate’s disintegration. At fifteen, after his mother’s suicide, he left home for Kibbutz Hulda to become a Labor Zionist. It was there, at Hulda, that young Klausner changed his surname to “Oz”, meaning strength, met his wife, Nily, and began to write, stealing away in the early hours by candlelight to the bathroom with a pen and notepad. He went on to study philosophy and literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and serve in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. He published his first book in 1965, a collection of short stories entitled Where the Jackals Howl. Since then, his oeuvre has grown to 38 books, 13 of them novels, and he has become the recipient of too many awards to name. A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz’s memoir and widely considered his magnum opus, was translated just last year into a film directed by and starring Natalie Portman. In Oz’s writing, Israel speaks, whispering its magnificent tales of conquer and reconquer, of ordinary human life, of celestial struggle, heartbreak, family, wailing partition, and of identity.

Near the end of my stay in the Holy Land, I spoke to Oz over the phone. We discussed the project of Israeli literature, and, inevitably, the project of Israel.

—Prashanth Ramakrishna

I. PLAYING TENNIS WITH YOURSELF

AMOS OZ: Yes?

THE BELIEVER: Hi, Mr. Oz. It’s Prashanth.

AO: Yes, how are you?

BLVR: It’s nice to meet you, if only over the telephone.

AO: Tell me, please, are you going to record our conversation? Or are you going to take notes?

BLVR: I am recording as we speak, if that’s alright with you.

AO: No, it’s very good. I prefer this.

BLVR: Ok, good.

AO: Then we may go ahead. You may begin with your questions, please.

BLVR: It strikes me that the function of Israeli literature thus far—and anyone who reads your work, from My Michael through to In the Land of Israel, and finally to Judas, will immediately realize this to be true, even if unintentionally so—is to document the troubled childhood of Israel. I’m wondering what you think sets this particular task apart from the task of the French or the British writer, or even the American writer, who are dealing with nations in different stages of life?

AO: Well, I’m not sure I’m happy with words such as “task” or “role” when they are attached to literature. I prefer to talk about the gift of literature rather than its role or task. You know, gynecology has a role; sex is a gift. And literature is not about sending messages.

Each time I have the urge in me to make a statement or send a message or to issue a manifesto, I don’t bother to write a novel. I write an article and publish it in a popular newspaper, or I make a television appearance. I would not waste five years of my life in order to send to the Israeli readers a simple message such as, “Let us change a policy or stop the settlements,“ Or, "Let us strive for peace.” This is not what it is about.

Literature is about telling stories. Now, the gift of literature is that, in some lucky cases, reading a novel or a story makes the reader more curious, more open-minded. It may open a third eye in the middle of the reader’s forehead. It may make the reader reexamine some of his or her own conventions, look at himself or herself in a different way, look at others in a different way. This goes way beyond just making statements or manifesting principles.

BLVR: Do you not feel that alongside the gift of story your work has served to document Israel from birth now to early adolescence?

AO: Of course. There is a document in every novel in the world. Even in the most fantastic novel, even in science fiction, there is a documentary side. But, this side is not the crux of the matter. Documents are in great abundance. There are films. There are historical documents. There are reliable sources. There are newsreels and magazines. There are memoirs written by people who took part in the event. I don’t think a novel’s main donation, main gift, is the document. The document is there, but a novel goes beyond documentation. It goes into opening a new vista, opening a new perspective, showing familiar things in an unfamiliar way, and making the reader reconsider the documentary facts which he or she may have known before.

BLVR: You characterize Israel and Palestine as warring siblings unable to realize that the real cause of their respective misfortunes is not each other, but their common father, Europe. Israel’s sibling is always, no matter what the subject, providing background noise. I am curious about what you think the effect of—I guess we can call it fratricide, is on the psyche of Israel.

AO: I approach this more in my essays and in my articles than I do in my novels. In my essays and articles I have been saying again and again that the case of Israel and Palestine, the case of Israel and the Arab world, and indeed the case of Israel and Europe, is not black and white. It’s not a western movie.

Many intellectuals in America and in Europe, they are in the habit of taking sides: who are the bad guys? who are the good guys? They launch a demonstration against the bad guys, sign a petition in favor of the good guys, and going to sleep feeling well about themselves. This is not the case here. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy; it is a clash between right and right. And, therefore it’s not black and white. Sometimes, recently it is indeed a clash between wrong and wrong. It is not as simple as fascism was. Every decent man had to be against fascism, period. It is not as simple as apartheid or colonialism or racism or misogyny. It is not simple because the Palestinians have no other land. They are absolutely right about this. The Israeli Jews also have no other land and they are absolutely right about this. It is a tragedy of two peoples claiming the same very small country—very small, about the size of New Jersey. And both of them are right. Both of them have no other homeland as peoples. As individuals, maybe, but not as a people.

If people are pro-Israel, they are pro-Israel one-hundred-and-twenty percent. If they are anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian, they tend to be pro-Palestinian one-hundred-and-twenty percent. I don’t think a decent person has to choose between being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. I think you have to be pro-Peace.

BLVR: It seems to me that, in Israeli literature in general—and I found this to be particularly true in the case of Black Box—and in the collective memory of the Israeli people that there exists this vast chasm of historical silence, a discontinuity of sorts, between biblical times and the 1940s. I wonder how the smashing together of the ancient and the modern has affected the way in which you approach the historical scope of Israeli literature.

AO: I never regard my characters, my protagonists, as personifications. It’s not that I sit by my desk and I pick up a character who will be the spokesperson of the Israeli Left, another one will be the spokesperson of the Right, another one will be the spokesperson of Middle Eastern Jews, European Jews, religions Jews and so on. In Black Box, Michel is a one and only. I have never met another Michel. He believes in many things that I do not believe, but he believes those things very genuinely. I tried to present him and his beliefs as convincingly as I possible could just as I did with his antagonist in the novel. D.H. Lawrence, I think, defined the difference between writing an article and writing a novel very well. He said, in writing a novel, the writer must be able to identify emotionally and intellectually with two or three or four contradicting perspectives and give each of them very a convincing voice. It’s like playing tennis with yourself and you have to be on both sides of the yard. You have to be on both sides, or all sides if there are more than two sides.

Black Box is not a statement about injustice committed against Sephardi Oriental Jews or about the extremism of religious Jews or the lack of imagination of the old Israeli elites. It’s a human story, in my view, first and foremost about a mystical communion between enemies. Two men struggling for the heart of one woman. And, they end up almost, almost, in unison, in brotherhood. They almost love one another, all three of them—the woman and the two men. They move through the novel as fierce enemies, sometimes as vicious, venomous enemies and they end up almost in the same bed together, all three of them. This is the inner story of the novel. I didn’t takes sides. When I need to take a side, I write a newspaper article and I tell my government, “You should not do that, you should do this.” They don’t listen to me, but I’ve been doing this for sixty years now. But, when I write a novel, I am not in that business. I follow the way people change. I follow the way people, who are very antagonized to one another become very close to one another and vice-versa. Sometimes I follow the way people who are intimately close to each other move apart. This is my business as a novelist. It is not about positions and ideas.

BLVR: I was interested more in that chasm of historical silence I mentioned and reconciling that historical discontinuity.

AO: Yes, reconciling. I often write about reconciling. Reconciling, or maybe half-reconciling between antagonists, between people who are deadly enemies. I write about reconciliation, but not as a miracle, as a slow, gradual process of mutual discovery—discovering one another. The reconciliation is not based on the fact that one of the characters opens his eyes and says, “O brother! O sister! How terrible I was! How right and wonderful you were! Please forgive me! Let’s hug and love each other from now until the rest of eternity!” This is not the kind of reconciliation I write about; I write about sad, sober, sometimes heart-breaking compromises.

I’m a great believer in compromise. I know it’s not popular among young idealists. Compromise is not popular. It’s not at all popular among young people who these days call themselves “activists.” They think compromises are dishonest, opportunistic, humiliating. Not in my vocabulary. In my vocabulary, the word “compromise” is synonymous to the word “life”. The opposite of compromise is not integrity. The opposite of compromise is not idealism. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. And yes, I know one or two things about fanaticism and death, and I reject them. The alternative to fanaticism and to death is not some miraculous realization that someone has been wrong and he has to apologize. No, the answer to fanaticism and to death is curiosity and compromise and concession. Now, let me make it very clear: when I say compromise I do not mean capitulation. When I say compromise I definitely do not mean what Jesus Christ meant when he offered us to turn our other cheek to our enemies. Compromise means, try to meet the other somewhere half-way. And, this can only happen if the other is willing to go half-way in order to meet you. That is the very strict line between compromise and capitulation. I’m a great believer in compromises. I do not believe in capitulation.

BLVR: There seems to be reference either to biblical time periods or reference to Israel’s more recent history.

AO: Well, all my novels are rooted in their time and in their place. The place of my novels is Israel, almost without exception. All of them take place in Israel—in Jerusalem, in the desert, in the kibbutz, in small towns, in villages. Almost without exception, my novels are rooted in Israel because that’s the place I know well. And, that’s my gutsy advice to any young writer: write only about what you know well. Don’t write about that which you don’t know. So, yes, the background is always Israel. And, the time is more or less my lifetime—the past seventy years, a little more, a little less. I don’t write novels about expeditions to the planet Mars because I haven’t been there and I don’t know anything about it.

BLVR: Do you not find it an interesting paradox in some sense that there is, coexisting in the Israeli consciousness, a deep connection to the ancient?

AO: Of course. I don’t know you personally, but not you, not I, not your editor, not any human being really begins on the day which appears in the passport as their date of birth. We all begin much much much earlier. In fact, every one of us—every nation, every individual begins hundreds, perhaps thousands of years prior to the date that appears in the passport.

Of course, we carry inside of ourselves our parents. Even when they are dead, we carry them inside ourselves. And they are carrying inside themselves their dead parents and so on and so forth. There is a legacy of language and culture and religion. In some cases, family stories told by grandparents to little grandchildren. All of this is part of me and part of you and part of the characters in my novels, of course. When I say my novels are set in Israel in the last seventy years, this entails the fact that they begin hundreds or thousands of years earlier in time. And, sometimes in very, very different places, because we all come from somewhere, especially here in Israel. Everybody comes from somewhere.

II. HEBREW WORDS

BLVR: Which brings me to the point that Israel is a nation of immigrants, and therefore, is almost by definition a hodgepodge of various languages. You yourself grew up in a household where many many languages were spoken—mostly Russian and Polish. I’ve heard talk of literatures in different languages taking on different musicalities, and those musicalities then inflecting depending on what other linguistic influences may be in the vicinity. Do you think this is true? Do you think that Israeli literature has a certain musicality, that the musicality of your Hebrew writing was affected by the myriad languages you were surrounded by growing up?

AO: It’s an excellent question. Literature exists inside the language. It’s made of words. It’s not made of ideas and it’s not made of concepts, of psychological analysis. It’s made of words. In the same way in which music is made of notes and a painting is made of lines of colors, the matter of literature are words. So, literature belongs first and foremost to the language in which it is being written. The very same book, even if it is translated very accurately, let’s say from Hebrew into English or from English into Hebrew, becomes a different book because language is a musical instrument. Of course my books are translated into many languages. I have here, in my home, translations on my shelf of my books into forty-five different languages. Almost none of them I can read. I can read only the english editions. I cannot read the Korean, the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Bulgarian and so on. But, I know that a translation of a work of literature is like playing a violin concerto on the piano. You can do this. You can do this very successfully on one strict condition: never try to force the piano to produce the sounds of the violin. This will be grotesque. So, different musical instruments provide for different music. There are certain concepts, which exist in english, and are unthinkable, untranslatable into Hebrew and vice versa. Hebrew has a system of tenses, which is, in a big way, different from the English system of tenses, probably different than any European system of tenses, which means a different sense of reality, which means a different concept of time. So, things can be translated, but they become different. 

Now, I work in Hebrew. Hebrew is deeply inspired by other languages. Not now, for the last three thousand years, Hebrew has been penetrated and fertilized by ancient Semitic languages—by Aramaic, by Greek, by Latin, by Arabic, by Yiddish, by Latino, by German, by Russian, by English, I could go on and on. It’s very much like English. The English language took in many many fertilizations, many many genes, from other languages, from foreign languages—Latin, French, Nordic languages, German, Scandinavian languages. Every language has influences and is an influence. My musical instrument is Hebrew and, to me, this is the most important fact about my writing. I write in words. I don write in sounds or in shapes or in flavors. I write in words. And my words are Hebrew words.

BLVR: Speaking of Hebrew, this is something I was curious about: early Israeli writers—you perhaps being the best example—interest me very much because they essentially invented Hebrew literature. I mean, it existed before, but not in any meaningful sense—it operated mostly within religious and philosophical domains—certainly not in any context of “fiction.” Is this something you are conscious of when you are writing? That you are contributing to the invention of a literature, and consequently to the revival of a language?

AO: I have no way of giving you a concise lecture on the history of Hebrew language and literature. The Old Testament is full of poetry, prophecies, chronicles, documentations, storytelling, fairytales. Almost every modern literary form existed in Hebrew two thousand years ago. And, yes, it existed even during the middle ages. The revival of Hebrew, as a spoken language, is a fascinating story, which I’m afraid I cannot squeeze into a few sentences. But, let me give you a clue. Think about Elizabethan English, where the entire English language behaved pretty much like molten lava, like a volcano in mid-eruption. Modern Hebrew has some things in common with Elizabethan English. It is being reshaped and it’s expanding very rapidly in various directions. So, yes, I think there are one or two things similar in Elizabethan English and contemporary Hebrew. This is not to say that every one of us Israeli writers is a William Shakespeare, but there is a certain similarity to Elizabethan English.

III. FUTURISTIC NOVELS

BLVR: I’ve heard you speak about Israel as a spectrum of dreams, and say that any dream, once fulfilled, once precipitated from imagination into reality, is by nature imperfect and therefore disappointing. I was curious as to what your dream for Israel is, if you have one, and in what ways, now that the dream of Israel has come to fruition, you find that dream disappointing.

AO: The first answer is very simple: my dream for Israel is peace, external and internal peace. I want Israel to live in peace with its neighbors and in peace with itself. Now, the dreams and the visions of the founding fathers, these were very very ambitious dreams. They were world reformers. They wanted to create a new and improved kind of humanity, or at least, a new and improved Jewish society, a new and improved Jewish individual human being here. In many ways, some of them were communists, some of them were social democrats, some of them were radicalists, some were even fascists. Some were religious, some were secular, so there is no such thing as “The Zionist Dream,” with a capital article. The whole Zionist project was based on a whole spectrum of different and even conflicting dreams and visions. 

Now, Israel is a fulfillment, and as a fulfillment, it is flawed. The fact that it is flawed is not so much a testimony about the failures of Israel. No, it is a testimony about the nature of dreams. The only way to keep a dream, any dream at all, to keep a dream perfect and rosy and intact and unsullied is never to live it out. The moment you carry out any of your dreams or your fantasies—travel around the world, climbing a high mountain, buying a new house, writing a novel, carrying out a sexual fantasy, traveling to an unknown country—the moment you carry out your dreams, it’s always, by definition less perfect and rosy than it had been as a dream. This is the nature of dreams. And Israel—let’s not forget it—Israel is a fulfilled dream. Nothing that exists here existed here a hundred years ago. “The State of the Jews” was not a title of a country. It was a title of a futuristic novel. A little more than a hundred years ago, “Tel Aviv” was not a city. It was a title of another novel written by the same author. The “Return to Zion” was a name of another novel. There was a bookshelf. There was no country. There was no state. There was no nation. There was no physical Jewish reality in this country. All you can see, if you look through the window—everything you see is a fulfillment of dreams, different dreams. Now, dreams fulfilled are imperfect. And, Israel is imperfect, of course it is—a far cry from the monumental dreams of the founding fathers. One of the reasons is that their dreams were unrealistic. They were bigger than life. These were messianic dreams, dreams about total redemption for the Jews, for the world. Such dreams do not come true, not in their entirety.

My dream is much more modest than the dreams of the founding fathers. My dream is for Israel to live in peace with its neighbors and at peace with itself. This will be sufficient for me.

Prashanth Ramakrishna is a 19-year-old personifying the cliche of an “aspiring young writer in New York City”. When not scribbling in his overplayed, tragic moleskin, he’s earnestly tilting his head in an attempt to derive deeper meaning from minimalist art. He is from Shanghai when it suits him and Detroit when it doesn’t.