It’s wild. It’s new. It turns men on
- The Same Sea by Amos Oz
Chatto, 201 pp, £15.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 7011 6924 9
The best thing about Amos Oz’s novel in verse is almost untranslatable: his Hebrew poetry is too dense for any European language to convey. The musicality and rhythm are impressive, and Oz’s mastery of free indirect speech allows him to effect a continuous movement between his narrator and his characters. Free indirect speech plays a major role in modern Hebrew prose, partly because it is an aestheticised (civilised, liberal) means of choking off the Other’s voice, leaving him or her the right to speak only on condition that the ‘I’ has the final say. Yet, when Oz speaks to himself, about himself, for the first time in his long public career, he sounds more sincere than he ever has in interview or public discussion, where he always sounds worse than phoney. ‘Dear parents, dear Fania and Arie, it’s night now and I’m in my room/in Arad, alone.’ Then the direct address: ‘Dad you stand up,/stooped. Mother you are sitting, erect and beautiful. Dad you appear to/insist, refusing to open the window. But you Mother won’t give in./In the deep darkness you weep in vain in a whisper,/in whispers Dad you try to explain.’ Why is this so persuasive? Is it that good? Do I find it moving because for years Oz’s role as a Zionist icon, semi-official fund-raising ambassador to Ivy League and Oxbridge donors, seemed ridiculous? Every personal story was always in a way a story about ‘us’, the Zionist ‘dream’, or the Zionist nightmare.
The Same Sea deals with ethnicity, a fact which doesn’t really come across in the translation, except in terms of the biographical details of the protagonists, and of the ‘traditional pre-modern’ background of Nadia, the beautiful dead woman: ‘At sixteen and a half, in a country town, she was married to a well-off relative./A widower aged thirty. It was the custom/to marry daughters within the family.’ But then on her arrival in Israel, where people ‘even more Oriental’ than Balkan Jews like her were modernised, this tender, almost mute woman is remarried to Albert Danon, the protagonist. The English reader, however, cannot tell that in terms of Israel’s ‘mainstream’ culture, these characters are ‘others’. In the Hebrew, by contrast, the protagonists’ names (Danon, Rico, Albert, Bettine), the town of Bat Yam and the way all these are pronounced, sometimes even the wonderful language the characters use, signal this element of ethnicity very clearly.
Why might Israeli readers be thought to want an account of ethnicity which avoids any sense of the long repressed history of the Sephardic community in Israel? Why is this story about Balkan Jews (from Sarajevo, Sofia, Crete etc) and not, say, about ‘plain Israelis’ as the English reader might construe them? A very particular deferential otherness is being depicted here, timid, ‘exotic’, non-complaining, submissive, repressed/repressing: one which allows a Hebrew reader to celebrate Israel’s ‘multi-ethnic identity’ without in any way threatening the fragile dream of New Israel. The deeper the political crisis in Israel, the more obsessed our culture becomes with identity. The interesting thing is that Oz makes every effort to suppress the more obdurate, irreconcilable otherness which permeates Israeli society. He does so by telling a minor story about wonderfully meek people living on the margins of ‘sinful’ Tel Aviv. And again, one must give him his due: the old Balkan Hebrew idiom is beautifully intertwined with his own voice.