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Amos Oz: An Optimistic Israeli

Amos Oz is probably Israel's best known writer. Now 65, he looks and speaks like an elder statesman. For a man who doesn't feel at home in English, he speaks it very well. Talking in well measured sentences with both wit and imagery, intelligence and humanity shine out of his words. He is not here to speak about politics. He would like to talk of 'the Israel beyond the headlines'. His novels are moving personal books where politics is only part of the backdrop to the important things in life: love, death, desire, loneliness, etc. As he says, "Even on the slope of an erupting volcano, life goes on."

However he has taken a political position - and is a leading figure in the Israeli 'Peace Now' movement. As a writer he feels a duty to speak out against 'tainted language': "When people are described as parasites, sooner or later they will be treated as parasites". As a journalist he writes angry pieces. "I tell the government to go to hell," he sighs "But they do not listen to me."

His message at the book festival is surprisingly optimistic. He describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a "clash between right and right" (although "recently between wrong and wrong") since both people have a right to a homeland. Asked about the future, Oz predicts that there will be a peaceful two state solution: Jerusalem will be split and the settlements at least partially disbanded, but there will be no mass resettlement of Palestinians in Israel. The two peoples must become neighbours, and he is hopeful that they will. Eventually.

He is not a naive dreamer: he condemns the leadership of the 'Mr Sharafats'. The current Palestinian campaign is "short sighted and fanatic" - but this does not change the righteousness of their claim. He is optimistic because he feels the majority on both sides, regardless of whether they like it or not, now accept that a two state solution is inevitable. "All the cruelty and bloodshed cannot change the fact that neither side will go away."

But he is here to talk about writing and language, about his latest book "The Same Sea", and his passion for Hebrew. The Same Sea is about a bereaved family. It is a strange book that blurs the line between poetry and prose. A novel, told in free verse, with a playful attitude towards reality: The dead wife/mother pops up to defend her son ("a little thing like being dead will not stop a Jewish mother"). Characters talk to those who are absent and know what is happening on the other side of the world. Amos Oz himself wanders in and talks to the characters. He describes "The Same Sea" as 'pre-archaic', an attempt to go back to the age of troubadours who mixed story with song, and the novel was 'a vagabond creature'.

It started accidently: He began writing a conventional novel. Each night he wrote some verses as notes or just for relaxation. After several weeks he realised these were the book. Since then it has taken 5 years to write, which Amos Oz blames on its' shortness ("A concise book is harder to write than a long one").

He reads a passage, first in translation and then in Hebrew. He is passionate about Hebrew, which with unabashed bias he calls 'the best musical instrument in the world', and attempts to communicate some of that passion to us. Hebrew is a language that slept for 17 centuries, and retains a strong flavour of its nomadic roots. For example there is no verb 'to have', only 'there is with me'. Other characteristics include concise phrasing (as an example he gives the 3 syllable opening sentence to one of his novels which became 5 times as long in translation), and a fluid attitude towards tense. Apparently biblical Hebrew had no present tense. Modern Hebrew does, but it is a fluid thing, allowing elegant transitions between past, present and future with the 'clunky changing of gears' required by other languages.

Given this passion, translation is a tricky issue for him. He describes it as "like making love through a blanket" but softens this to "like playing a concerto for the violin on piano": It can work, but only as long as you don't try to play the piano like a violin. He tells his translator Nicholas De Lange to be "unfaithful in order to be loyal". He thinks De Lange succeeds. Amos Oz's books should appeal regardless of attitudes towards Israel - or interest in its problems. They are set in Israel because that is where he lives and what he knows. They deal with politics because their characters have to. But they are about life, not politics: desire and loneliness, love and death; the things common to everyone.

© D.Winterstein, 2002


© Daniel Winterstein 1998-2008

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