There was and there was not

Jonathan Coe

Amos Oz and David Grossman are both political writers. This might seem an obvious statement, given that they are well-known for being politically vocal and have both written political (non-fiction) books consisting of interviews with their Palestinian and Israeli countrymen. But the main thing is that they also write intensely and truthfully political novels of the sort which tend to be thin on the ground in Britain. Partly, no doubt, this is a question of Israel’s history, and of the urgency of the material which it offers, but there’s also the possibility that when a writer decides to leap boldly into the area where ideology leaves off and action begins, significant analogies between political and literary activity start to emerge. One of them has to do with the nature of lies, because the fundamentalist Platonic position that ‘telling stories is telling lies’ has haunted the conscience of the imaginative writer for centuries. Even Sidney’s attempt to brush it off by claiming that the poet ‘nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth’ seems more than a little shifty: a real politician’s manoeuvre, in fact. It doesn’t deflect attention from the central link between politics and literature, which is that they both boil down to the art of lying in the name (supposedly) of a higher truth.

And lying is the subject of both these novels: explicitly so in Grossman’s case, for he describes it on the dust-jacket as ‘a story about falsehood and fantasy’. Oz’s hero, Yoel Ravid, meanwhile finds himself ‘fascinated by the quality of lies: how does each person build his own lies? By a flight of fancy and imagination? Negligently, off-handedly ... The way a lie is woven he regarded as an unguarded peephole that sometimes allows a glimpse inside the liar.’ This fascination is hardly surprising, because Yoel has only recently retired from the Israeli secret service, and his whole life up until this point has been predicated on the sort of lies which tear families apart: his wife, still in love with him but long ago withdrawn into a state of uncommunicative helplessness, has recently met with a – literally – shocking accidental death (unless it was something more sinister), while his daughter compounds her repertoire of pubertal sulks with bouts of epilepsy (unless she is putting it on).

Yoel’s response to these challenges is an inadequate one: a master of unflappability, programmed to get to the heart of every problem by patient rationalising rather than smashing his way in, he decides to let each family crisis run its course, and busies himself instead with cutting the lawn, watching the news, reading, sunbathing, and mulling things over in a cycle of repetitive mental patterns to which the reader soon becomes hypnotically accustomed. Sinister attempts are made by his former boss to persuade him to come back to the service, but he resists and eventually seeks gainful employment at an orthopaedic hospital, where his peculiarly inscrutable talents seem to have found their natural outlet. ‘To look at him you’d think he was floating in another world,’ says an admiring nurse. ‘Seeing nothing, hearing nothing ... But later it turns out that he’s filed it all away.’ Her colleague then pays him the ultimate compliment: ‘He’s a liar you can trust. A liar who doesn’t lie.’

What Oz appears to be suggesting, therefore, is that lies are simply inevitable and the important thing is to find a context in which they can be used constructively. The book is not so naive as to claim that Yoel has developed: what finally liberates him is not some kind of spiritual rebirth – merely an overwhelming sense of weariness with the compromises of his former life. But this interestingly negative moral trajectory is in itself unconvincing. Much as we want to believe in the progression from spy to orthopaedic nurse, Oz doesn’t give us enough detail to work on: the hospital scenes are perfunctory and the spy elements wilfully unspecific. We are never told exactly what Yoel did in his years as a secret agent: his wife accuses him of having worked as an assassin, while he describes himself as ‘a kind of valuer and purchaser of abstract merchandise’. There is vague talk of leads being followed, deals being struck, seedy rendezvous in backstreet hotels and so on, and this very abstraction is presumably part of Oz’s point: to get bogged down in specifics would be to forfeit the symbolic possibilities of the espionage motif, which is here used to gesture towards all sorts of unscrupulous political activity. (On one level Yoel the spy who just wants to cultivate his garden is like Oz the reluctant activist who just wants to write his books.) But it does also mean that we have no way of gauging the plausibility of Yoel’s transition: and in fact the very insouciance with which Oz presents it implies that perhaps this isn’t the focus of his interest at all.

Instead, the difficult task which he has set himself is to write a novel about the dynamics of inactivity and inertia: to observe the process by which moral decisions are really taken, not in terms of cathartic resolves and renunciations but as part of a series of tiny, almost imperceptible adjustments made against a backdrop of seemingly unthinking routine. Much the most successful aspect of the book is its faithful transcription of Yoel’s settled and engaging habits of thought. The same phrases, the same memories, the same images recur again and again, so that at first you think the novel must have been badly edited and then you realise that its aim, and a fairly audacious one at that, is to create what might be called a poetics of monotony. Oz is in no sense a magic realist, but he does have a gift for finding lyrical and figurative overtones hidden away in the most mundane bits of detail – as when one of Yoel’s friends, assuring him that he has plenty of time to decide whether or not to come on a yachting trip, first uses a phrase which becomes, through repetition, one of the novel’s most teasingly beautiful refrains: ‘The sea won’t run away.’ Such effects are possible because Oz, like his hero, has a powerful sense of the concreteness of language. If To Know a Woman impresses, finally, as a lucid and indeed honest book about lying, this honesty derives less from plot than from its consistent respect for words as the basic unit of both political and literary language: the currency which we can never afford to devalue.

Like Oz, David Grossman writes of a country fractured by politics, and his own quest for even a tentative repository of faith, some sort of bottom line, is no less urgent: but where Oz looks to language, Grossman, more ambiguously, looks to stories. Perhaps because of his astonishing readiness to tackle gigantic themes (of which ‘love’ in its largest sense is the most obsessive), relatively few critics seem to have remarked on what a bookish writer Grossman is. This is not simply a matter of the references in this novel (his first, published in Israel in 1983) to Macbeth, David Copperfield, Camus, Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Ariosto, Cervantes and others, but of his more fundamental inclination to see all human life as being grounded in fictions of varying degrees of integrity. The prolonged climax of the book involves a confrontation between two of its central characters – Uri, an idealistic Israeli soldier, and Khilmi, an old Palestinian teller of tales which invariably begin with the phrase kan-ya-ma-kan (‘once upon a time’ or, more literally and suggestively, ‘there was or there was not’). Khilmi presents Uri with a mad ultimatum – either the Israelis withdraw from the occupied territories, or he will shoot him – and a comparison of this situation with his own equally mad attempts to dispense justice among an oppressed people prompts Uri to a remarkable reflection: he realises he has been

lying all the time without knowing it. But that’s not the same as what’s happening to me here with Khilmi. There everyone was lying to me, while here – how shall I put it – we share a lie, which changes it from a lie into a more tolerant kind of truth. Because a lie one person alone believes in is a cruel and deadly deception, while a kan-ya-makan like mine and Khilmi’s is full and vigorous ... and it’s so vivid I’m beginning to feel faded by comparison.

For Grossman, the sanctity of life is enhanced rather than diminished if we can bring ourselves to see it as an aesthetic phenomenon. In See Under: Love he has Bruno Schulz making an impassioned statement of this case: ‘And now everyone will understand ... that whoever kills another human being destroys a uniquely idiosyncratic work of art which can never be reconstructed.’ For all the vast historical sweep of that novel, Grossman never lost control of his theme, and localised it in the character of Anshel Wasserman, the Jewish writer of children’s stories who was cast in the nightmarish role of Scherazade-in-reverse. (Wishing only to die, he enters into a pact with a Nazi officer who promises that ‘every evening, after you tell me more of the story, I am willing to try to kill you.’) The Smile of the Lamb reaches this kind of pitch only sporadically, as in one beautiful but throwaway illustration of the overlap between fiction and reality, when Uri looks back on a passionate correspondence with his first girlfriend, whom he never met: it turns out that she was nothing but a practical joke, her letters written by two of his army colleagues, and yet ‘the worst part was that I went on loving her ... Even when I got out of the army, I couldn’t help comparing girls I met to Ruthy, my first love.’

The plot is fairly simple, tracing as it does the network of dependencies and betrayals between Uri, Khilmi, an Israeli commander called Katzman and Uri’s wife, Shosh, who works at an institute for juvenile delinquents. Nonetheless, like See Under: Love, The Smile of the Lamb makes demanding reading. While even Oz’s most poetic flights have their roots in a watchful realism, Grossman’s prose is a thicket of outlandish imagery, slippery metaphors, transferred epithets, stops, starts and unannounced connections which generate an undeniable intensity at the expense of narrative rhythm. His line on the Israeli occupation is straightforward enough, and he is not above having one of his characters spell it out: ‘how is it possible for a whole nation, an enlightened nation, by all accounts, to train itself to perform such a complicated operation and live in a moral vacuum.’ But somehow a story which promised to have the stark outlines of a fable becomes too often cluttered and impenetrable. ‘There is no death,’ according to Uri, ‘there is only a sudden flagging of one fiction out of many’: it’s an insight which is evidently close to the author’s heart, but we must look to Grossman’s later novel if we want to see it being put to a thoroughly cogent test.