Between Friends By Amos Oz. Translated by Sondra Silverston. (Mariner Books, 179 pp. $14.95 paper)
The New York Times reported recently on a trend in literary fiction: the resurgence of the short-story collection. Current Israeli literature has been a vigorous participant in this trend.
Coming off his earlier 500-page magnum opus, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Mariner Books), Amos Oz published a series of poignant, interrelated fictional vignettes dealing with life on an Israeli moshav, Scenes From Village Life (Mariner Books). Following closely, Between Friends is yet another book of short stories by Oz; the Hebrew title, Bein Haverim (among comrades), is artfully ambiguous. While there are few close friends in Oz’s fictional Kibbutz Yekhat, there is the camaraderie—and the disputatiousness—that derives from a shared ideology.
The volume’s eight stories are astutely woven together as eight character portraits. Dropping a sheet of litmus paper into the chemical compound that is a kibbutz, Oz examines the ways these individuals fit into the collective—or not. This litmus test reveals a great deal of chemistry among the haverim, but also uncovers both acidity and baseness. These kibbutzniks are mostly ideologically correct—more than a little “red”—and at the same time immersed in existential sadness—more than a little “blue.”
The narrator looks critically but not judgmentally back at “our kibbutz,” through the eyes of the young kibbutznik he was in the 1950s. He sees, for example, an egalitarian society in which sexually liberated women still do the “women’s work” and doctrinaire “rules” that resemble cult-like religious orthodoxy.
The most moving of the stories, “Two Women,” tells the tale of Osnat and Ariella, and their relationship to boorish Boaz, the husband of Osnat, who unceremoniously decamps for Ariella’s bed. Most fascinating is the sisterly exchange of notes that ensues between the two women, highlighting Osnat’s natural righteousness (a trait we see again in the final story, “Esperanto,” as Osnat cares for a dying, lonely comrade whose extreme principles she finds distasteful) and Ariella’s almost sexual attraction to Osnat, deriving perhaps from her guilt-ridden remorse and regret that Boaz is not the lover she expected.
Oz asserts that “the very idea of a kibbutz denied the concept of loneliness.” And yet there is much loneliness in his kibbutz. Oz portrays a solitary gardener whose social life revolves around the announcement of world-shattering disasters. There is the story of a man who cannot work up the courage to confront a powerful kibbutznik his own age who has taken up with his young daughter. Even the kibbutz clown, who always has a gossipy zinger to aim at his haverim, and the youngish kibbutz secretary, whose progressive outlook portends a less stressful future for the kibbutz, have their own personal and psychological problems. Only the kibbutz’s ideological bully, who intimidates his comrades by browbeating them into submission, does not seem to suffer from any personal malaise.
If there is a lesson to be learned from that circumstance, we will have to wait for a sociological study—and satisfy ourselves with the literary portraits painted by the superb short-story writer that is Amos Oz.