Books: Fight or Flight

April 2014 Home Column List 2

Books: Fight or Flight



Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz. Translated by Nicholas de Lange. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 182 pp. $22)

In Scenes from Village Life , Amos Oz paints a series of seven landscapes of Tel Ilan, a fictional “little bit of Provence in the State of Israel.” To depict what goes on in an Israeli village, Oz takes us on a tour of the homes of several inhabitants of this 100-year-old community, from the mayor to the bus driver, to the resident real estate agent. We are guided through the village’s fabled streets, its monuments and its woods, vineyards and orchards, which are blazing with local flora.
Behind this pictorial veneer, however, this is also a book about real estate—about who has legal title to the Land. In the first story, “Heirs,” a stranger, Wolf Maftsir, tries unctuously to ingratiate himself with the bewildered Arieh Zelnik, in an effort to claim at least partial ownership of Zelnik’s mother’s house.

The story “Digging” raises even more directly the question of legal title. Former Knesset Member Pesah Kedem is a grumpy 94-year-old who at night hears digging under his and his widowed daughter’s house. He obsesses that Adel, a young Arab in temporary residence on the rundown farm, is trying to destroy the foundation on which the house is built.

In “Lost,” Yossi Sasson, the village’s real estate agent, buys rundown houses and sells them to outsiders who knock them down to build modern vacation villas in their place. Soon, this familiar capitalist story takes on an aura of bizarre and even eerie mystery, suffused with erotic atmosphere and psychological dread.

In all the short tales, we are reminded of both Kafka and Freud. It soon becomes clear that, beyond what is happening in these stories, something else is going on.

This feeling is found even more intensely in “Singing,” the last of the Tel Ilan stories. Here, the first-person narrator has joined several characters from previous stories “to make harmony,” in a gemütlich evening sing-along. But there is an underlying dissonance in the feelings of goodwill engendered by this communal singing.

The narrator notes, “I had the sensation that something was going on in some darkened yard and that it concerned me.” Panicked, he gets the feeling that he must retrieve “something” from the pocket of his overcoat in another room and immediately finds himself within the realm of the fantastic. “There was a constant slow movement in the room,” he remarks, “as if someone big and heavy were stirring sleepily in the corner, or crawling on all fours.” And though the story doesn’t say so explicitly, the narrator falls asleep and has a dream—or rather a nightmare.
How else to explain the eighth story of the collection—“In a Faraway Place at Another Time”—that helps us account for the dread permeating the book? The landscape changes abruptly from the familiar scenes of heimliche village life in present-day Israel to a primitive time zone where the village has become a savage unheimliche place, where the narrator has fallen into despair. The story concludes with a pessimistic reworking of Voltaire’s admonition that, in the end, all we can do is “cultivate our garden.”

“Whoever can work,” says the town’s gravedigger, “let him work.... Whoever can’t work anymore, let him die. And that’s all there is to it.”

Is this finally how Oz sees Israeli life—through an unrelievedly gloomy lens? That he does so in this book with a great deal of art and with much psychological insight makes it worth the read. —Joseph Lowin

The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. (HarperCollins, 416 pp. $17.99)

In The Berlin Boxing Club, Karl Stern, a Berlin secondary school student and an aspiring cartoonist, is startled into his Jewishness when he is brutally attacked by sadistic Nazi classmates. Eager to learn self-defense, he is trained by Max Schmelling, the world-famous boxing champion. During sessions at the Berlin Boxing Club, he quickly masters the sport that Hitler claimed “granted the power of rapid decision and gives the body the flexibility of good steel.” His new skills allow him to protect himself and his endangered family.

The author deftly weaves the rise of Nazism, the Nuremberg Laws, the historic bout between Schmelling and Joe Louis and the Olympics into a compelling narrative. Karl is tenacious, but his relationship with his vulnerable younger sister, Hildy, and the reassuring cartoons he creates for her—a graphic bonus amid the dramatic text—is tender.

Like The Book Thief (Random House) by Markus Zusak, this novel targeted to young adults will engage mature readers as well. —Gloria Goldreich

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