An Outpost of Ashdod

Nicholas Spice

  • A Perfect Peace by Amos Oz, translated by Hillel Halkin
    Chatto, 374 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2959 X

Of all the raw deals meted out in the Bible – not excluding Job’s or that blighted fig tree’s – Moses surely suffered the meanest. After all he had gone through for Yaweh and the Chosen People, his exclusion from the Promised Land within sight of it was cruelly unfair. Or so it seemed to my child’s mind, as repeatedly in Scripture classes and Sunday school we rehearsed the story of the Exodus, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness and the entry of the Children of Israel into the Land of Canaan. My sense of solidarity with the patriarch, in which I am sure I was not alone, was mixed with awe that this sort of thing could happen to grown-ups too, and behind that a dim perception that perhaps it was in the nature of promised lands and the bid to reach them that they should entail a high vulnerability to disappointment and dashed hopes. Clearly, growing up was no solution, unless growing up meant putting by such longings altogether.

The problem of promised lands, Utopian dreams, human cravings for a place of rest, a home – whether for the body or the spirit – is one that Amos Oz returns to time and again in the two books of his most recently to be translated into English, A Perfect Peace and In the Land of Israel. In both he suggests that coming to terms with such yearning is a precondition of maturity. A Perfect Peace is a novel set in the eighteen months leading up to the Six-Day War; In the Land of Israel, a collection of polemical essays, in which through a series of interviews Oz animates a wide range of opinions on the state of Israel after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres, in September 1982, at the Arab refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. In the Land of Israel was published in English in 1983, although it was written shortly after A Perfect Peace. I suggest the two books be read together. Certainly, the volume of essays enormously enhanced and enlightened my reading of the novel. On the subject of modern Israel and its complex sectarian struggles it teaches with an unusual economy and vividness, helping to place the novel in a political and historical context.

Given the power of the Exodus story as a paradigm for all narratives of personal and political striving, as well as for interpreting the course of later Jewish history, it is hardly surprising that in two books preoccupied with human aspirations (whether or not specifically Jewish) it should never be far from Oz’s mind. Thus in his intense debate with the extremist settlers of the Gush Emunim movement in Ofra on the West Bank, Oz naturally invokes the analogy with Moses as a way of making his case:

These ancient Biblical charms are like the Promised Land unto Moses: For thou shalt see the land afar off, but thou shalt not go thither. Because you, with your bulldozers, will spread your factory-built houses with their asbestos roofs and solar water heaters and symmetrical rows of white houses and security fences and antennas across hills and vales ... Where shall we turn our ancient Biblical longings if Samaria is filled with prefab villas?

In A Perfect Peace it is the disappointment of a promised fulfilment which unites a father and son who in other respects have little in common and little sympathy for one another. The father is Yisra’el Yolek Lifshitz, pioneer kibbutznik and veteran of the Jewish Labour Party, chill at heart from the knowledge that he and his comrades in the struggle for a just and happy Israel will die ‘each ... in his own corner without a chance to see the end’. The son is Yonatan Lifshitz, 27 years old, whose rejection of life on Kibbutz Granot is the protest of a hurt child to whom the grown-ups had made a promise ‘that he had been sure would be kept but still had not been’.

It is Tlallim who observes this in Yonatan, reading the lines of hurt in the young man’s face as he peers at him sleeping in the midday sun ‘among the shacks and tents of Ein-Husub’ near the Jordanian border. Tlallim is a desert tramp, a self-styled (Russian Jewish) nomad who lives out of the back of a beat-up jeep. He immediately divines what Yonatan is up to, guessing every detail of his plan to steal across the border by night into Jordan and visit the ruined city of Petra. And he sees the plan for what it is: a reckless and self-destructive act of defiance and revenge against a father. Ignoring Tlallim’s taunts that the Atallah bedouin will rape him and chop him into little pieces, Yonatan continues on his journey into the valley of death. A fearful night-time ordeal follows, bringing him a measure of enlightenment, and the next morning he is back with Tlallim. Three months later Yonatan Lifshitz returns home.

Yonatan is accepted back on Kibbutz Granot without comment. The uproar his departure had provoked has subsided. But for Yolek his son’s rebellion has brought to a head long-standing tensions with Hava his wife, and raised an old ghost, the still unsettled question of whose son Yonatan really is. The emotional strain tells on Yolek. By the time Yonatan returns home, his father is a spent force in kibbutz affairs and his position as secretary has been filled by Srulik, a gentle and compassionate old German. Meanwhile Azariah (of whom more in a moment) has established himself as the de facto husband of Yonatan’s wife, Rimona, and Rimona is pregnant, though by which of the two men is uncertain. Yonatan accepts this unorthodox arrangement, as he himself has been accepted. Summer passes to winter. 1966 ends and 1967 begins, bringing with it the Six-Day War and the end of A Perfect Peace.

The novel is in two parts, with the transition from Part One to Part Two corresponding to a broad expressive movement from tension to release, stasis to flow, blocked development to change. Yonatan’s decision to leave home is announced in the first paragraph of Chapter One, but it is not until page 209 that he actually makes it through the front door. In the meantime, we experience the conditions of suppression, stagnation and control which have brought him to the state he is in on page one. In particular, we get to know Yolek, who immobilises Yonatan by expecting him to be an extension of himself, and Rimona, whose sexual and emotional passivity borders on the pathological. As day by dreary day of that long first winter passes – torrents of rain turning the kibbutz fields to mud and plastering its paths with sodden leaves, chill fogs sitting on the dank and darkened land – the magnitude of the burden which Yonatan has to throw off becomes oppressively clear.

A Perfect Peace is as much about the coming of Azariah Gitlin as it is about the going of Yonatan Lifshitz. Azariah, nicknamed Zaro, bursts into the book in the second chapter, appearing one night on Kibbutz Granot as if from nowhere, ‘plunging out of the bushes face first’, soaked to the skin and clutching a guitar case. He is provisionally accepted on the kibbutz because of his skill as a mechanical engineer, and also because, against his better judgment, Yolek takes a fancy to him. Azariah is fated with a manner designed to repel: egregious familiarity mixed with rudeness, effrontery tempered with fawning. But he is intellectually brilliant, artistic and sensitive, and above all, unexpectedly sincere: Azariah delivers what he promises. To Srulik, Zaro is a typical Jew (as opposed to an Israeli) and he reckons he’ll never be accepted by the community (‘I never did believe a Jew could really and truly assimilate’). Srulik is proved wrong. Azariah sets about ingratiating himself with an energy and commitment that leave his critics gasping. Before long he has usurped Yonatan as Yolek’s son and Rimona’s husband, while somehow managing to retain him as a friend. In the end, it is by showing that he knows how to care for the ones he loves (something Yonatan still has to learn) that Azariah persuades the kibbutz to accept him as a full member.

The doubling of Yonatan and Azariah is the most striking of the weights and counterbalances, the points and counterpoints of this deeply pondered novel. Without a hint of schematisation or of a matching-up too plausible for life, Oz succeeds in portraying these two characters as entirely complementary opposites. Part of the trick here is perspective, since Yonatan is portrayed from the inside and Azariah from without. The result is that Yonatan seems clarified and empty, a young man without qualities, while Zaro, coming at us with colours hoisted high, set on making us his friends, seems dense, complicated and full. In relation to Azariah and Yonatan, Rimona and Yolek also play complementary and contrasting roles. Rimona is Yonatan’s point of departure and the place where Zaro comes to rest. Where Rimona integrates their contradictory claims, Yolek polarises them, rejecting Yonatan and accepting Azariah. A further duality is defined by Yolek and Srulik, Srulik’s rising balancing Yolek’s setting sun.

The meanings of A Perfect Peace are nowhere openly declared, and where they come nearest to being so, they are least interesting. Yet, as in those picture puzzles for children where the game is to discover fifty monkeys in a tree or thirty rabbits in a meadow, meanings nestle everywhere in this novel, just below the level of immediate apprehension and ready to ramify exuberantly once one stops to meditate them. With In the Land of Israel open in the other hand, the rate of multiplication doubles.

In the Land of Israel argues explicitly what A Perfect Peace embodies. The only humane way forward is through openness, pluralism and democracy. Maturity, whether political or personal, requires of us that we tame our fierce longings for a promised land and settle instead for ‘what there is’. Totalities of all kinds must be treated warily and compromises embraced. Rather than be seduced by the specious glamour of decisive action, we must learn to wait patiently. ‘There is no shortcut.’ The upshot of In the Land of Israel is clear, but since dogmatic assertion is part of what the book argues against and an enquiring scepticism so much what it recommends, its conclusions reach us through a thicket of qualifications and agnostic disclaimers: ‘What will become of us?’ ‘What can be done?’ ‘Maybe you know?’ The question-mark is Oz’s favourite point of punctuation. The underlying problem here is accentuated in the book’s epilogue, where Oz gives us a sketch of the city of Ashdod, his ideal polis:

  And what is, at best, is the city of Ashdod.

  A pretty city and to my mind a good one, this Ashdod ... And she is not quite the grandiose fulfilment of the vision of the Prophets and of the dream of generations; not quite a world premiere, but simply a city on a human scale ...

  Ashdod is a city on a human scale on the Mediterranean coast. And from her we shall see what will flower when peace and a little repose finally come.

The virtues of Ashdod are not by their nature easily argued with passion, and Oz is an incomparable polemicist whose forte is passionate argument. With his novelist’s instinct for entering into the minds and bodies of his opponents, he succeeds in lending their case a liveliness his own inevitably lacks. The Devil, after all, can make jokes and be ironic, while God, as Baudelaire pointed out, never laughs.

The absence of the Devil from A Perfect Peace (unless we are to take Tlallim as Mephistopheles in a major key) does not in any serious way undermine the force of the book as a vehicle for Oz’s morality, although it could perhaps do with a few more jokes. And it may be that the novel form is in principle a better instrument than the polemical essay through which to magnify the virtues of patience and moderation. At any rate, A Perfect Peace succeeds in presenting Oz’s own political case with a subtlety that is beyond the register of In the Land of Israel.

On the face of it, A Perfect Peace is about personal growth and private interactions. The biggest social unit it deals with is the kibbutz. But Oz disputes the separation of the private and the public (‘For us, history is interwoven with biography ... Private life is virtually not private here’), and the novel shows this in several ways. Superficially, it does so by representing politics both as pervasive in Israeli consciousness and as a family, affair: the truck-driver from whom Yonatan hitches his first lift immediately makes a political statement, while Levi Eshkol, the Prime Minister, turns up on Kibbutz Granot with his shirt hanging out to adopt the Lifshitz family crisis as a matter of official concern. At a deeper level, political themes (a hatred of nationalism, a belief in the necessity for peaceful coexistence) are mirrored in the structure of personal relationships – for example, in the dual instances of disputed paternity, which all four fathers are obliged to come to terms with, or in the idea that Yonatan and Azariah must share their right to Rimona (indeed, that Azariah has a right at all). Kibbutz Granot, as a flexible social container for a wide variety of human types and conflicting claims, is Oz’s ideal settlement, perfect in acknowledging imperfections and the necessity for compromise, a present reality to be going on with, an outpost of Ashdod.

A Perfect Peace is a model of democratic, open, pluralistic novel-making. No single character is allowed to dominate or monopolise our attention, and the shaping of events is represented not so much as an individual human prerogative as a generalised process in which individuals simply find themselves caught up, a flow as natural and inevitable as the transition which the novel makes from winter to spring. Indeed, for Oz, the ultimate leveller is nature herself: the seasons, the weather, the strangeness and beauty of the Israeli landscape. So often in A Perfect Peace, the gaze of the characters is distracted from the near by the far, to come to rest among the ‘ancient Biblical charms’ of the land – on a distant range of mountains or the setting sun. ‘The earth is indifferent. The sky is mysterious. The sea is a lasting menace.’ It is an entry from Srulik’s journal that ends the book, confirming it as a landscape with figures rather than a portrait with a background. But the ultimate poignancy and openness of A Perfect Peace is formal, and lies in the way its own point of rest seems to be located far beyond its boundaries – in the sense it gives at the end of only just having begun. In this most radical openness, in its eschewing not only of the ‘totality of the Land’ but of the totality of the novel, A Perfect Peace leaves us with a haunting awareness of the promise which all human lives have but which none can fulfil in the space allotted.