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.
Oz has always found it very hard to lower the tone of high Hebrew. ‘Perhaps it is possible to run a factory or an arms company or a foreign policy with just six hundred active words,’ he once remarked, but ‘in the vernacular one cannot court, quarrel, influence.’ In an essay published in 1994, he wrote: ‘Like any language, Hebrew has a certain integrity which I’m keen to preserve and protect from modernisation.’ Recently, Hebrew has become ‘like a person with loose morals: it has slept around and been influenced by Aramaic, English, Polish and whatnot.’ It was clear to Jacqueline Rose in States of Fantasy (1996) that ‘Oz defines one of his tasks as a writer as the preservation of the (sexual) integrity of Hebrew against modernisation and foreignness.’ But matters are far worse. The word ‘language’ in Hebrew, as in other languages, is feminine, and in the original text of Oz’s essay the image was not merely of a ‘person with loose morals’. ‘Modern Hebrew is seemingly a bimbo in heat,’ he wrote.
Now she is all seemingly with you, belongs to you, under your feet, seemingly ready for every trick, going happily for every daring invention, but soon you are back on your own, way behind her, sort of ridiculed, and she is rushing to her new lovers . . . but she never forgets, not even for a moment, the Prophets and the Sages whom she betrays everywhere with every passerby . . . under their gaze.
Why should Hebrew be thought to have any more ‘integrity’ than French or English? It is like any normal language: full of ‘foreign’ elements, dating from ancient Persian to Post-Modern American. Modern Hebrew isn’t even modelled on Biblical Hebrew, though we are all supposed to believe it is. Syntactically, it has been Yiddishised, while the vocabulary is a true hybrid. It is nonsense to speak about a ‘pure’ language. And in The Same Sea, Oz is clearly trying (as he did in a slightly different way in Black Box) to find a way around his constraining idealism about Hebrew – which is why, in this minimal moral drama, we find a narrator who identifies with the Sephardic father, Albert Danon (who is at the same time Ashkenazified by the novelist, having been given a taste for Western high culture, in the form of Italian opera).
Danon is an accountant and an ageing widower. His wife Nadia, once the beautiful young girl, has died of cancer. Their son, David-Rico, has taken off to India-Nepal-Thailand, as all young Israelis do, if you believe the fuss, as Oz seems to, about ‘migration’ in the Israeli media. The son’s girlfriend, Dita, lives in Tel Aviv, in a district frequented (if you believe the fuss in the media) by bohemians, drug users, left-wingers, unmarried men and mothers. Rico, a nice Sephardic boy (i.e. ‘nice Jewish boy’ in your vocabulary, when reading ‘us’), has a connection with this part of downtown Tel Aviv: ‘Piles of his books,/pamphlets, papers, publications, on all sorts/of wrongs: black studies, women’s studies/ lesbians and gays, child abuse, drugs, race,/rain forests, the hole in the ozone layer, not to mention injustice/in the Middle East’. And, as you’d suspect, this ridiculous hunger for bogus knowledge comes not from his ‘inner self’, but from his girlfriend Dita (an Ashkenazi Jew): ‘He went/to a left-wing rally with his girlfriend Dita Inbar.’
Oz is at his very worst on the subject of the ‘left-wing rally’. He fails to observe even a rudimentary intellectual decency. He can describe in detail Albert Danon’s small accounting business, he can describe the desert, not to mention the operas his characters are fond of, but he cannot or will not tell us anything at all about that ‘left-wing rally’. He can, however, tell us when Rico attended it: yes, just when his dying mother needed him most. The narrator doesn’t blame him, of course. He only notes it.
Three of the four protagonists in The Same Sea are living and one is dead – the dead mother, about whom Oz manages to write some of the most beautiful poems. This is how Albert blames his dead wife for the absence of their son: ‘You’ve filled his head with fairies and fog and you yourself have grown feathers and a beak and flown off into the cold.’ Traces of Modern Hebrew poetry can be found throughout the book, including echoes of two maj0r poets, Nathan Altermann and Nathan Zach. But Oz’s ‘signature’ remains visible, in the form of a painful longing for the dead mother, the dead wife. On the other hand, the most beautiful poems in the book do not seem to ‘belong’ to the story because in the end Oz fails to break away from his compulsive desire for discipline.
In Rico’s absence, Dita becomes the object of an old man’s fantasy – a role which lands her, finally, in the lap of the simple old Bulgarian accountant. In addition, being a pretty and fashionable leftist, she goes to bed with Rico’s good friend, Giggy Ben-Gal, but ‘he got on her nerves/when he called screwing intercourse.’ The narrator tries to take this screwing-yes-intercourse-no as nonchalantly as Dita takes it, but Oz’s dedication of a whole ‘chapter’ to this casual non-event (a ‘screwing’) suggests some difficulty.
This kind of ambivalence – or is it disingenuousness? – recurs throughout the novel: the narrator (the same age as Albert, who gets himself a young, motherly, salad-chopping lover, while his pre-Oedipal son is away) tries hard not to take the ‘wrong-doings’ of youngsters too seriously, to be compassionate, understanding, to forgive their whims (political, sexual, linguistic – for some of their jargon is deplorable, of course). And again, one soon notices that this ‘easygoing’ style is not so easy for Oz. He is fascinated – or repelled – by ‘loose morals’. On the casual sex, again: Giggy ‘disgusted her/by asking her afterwards how good it had been/for her on a scale of nought to a hundred’. Here, too, one can see Oz’s famous weakness: the love of stereotypes, about which much was written in Israel in the 1980s. Giggy introduces us to the world of sexual drives in the manner of a standard male in a ‘feminist’ Hollywood movie. We feel protective towards poor little Dita: what does she want, after all, but a simple orgasm? Is that so wrong? asks the prudish narrator. Then, towards the end of the poem, comes an image no longer in indirect free speech, but in the narrator’s ‘own words’: as Giggy falls asleep, ‘his cock shrivelled too/and went to sleep with a mosquito on it: blood vengeance.’
There is another disgusting lad, Dubi Dombrov. Not only is he divorced and Ashkenazi, but he has a non-Hebrew (i.e. Diaspora) name, and ‘a habit of panting like a thirsty dog, fast and hard,/through his mouth’. Dombrov, a real estate dealer and small-time film producer, is prepared to take on a script that Dita has written, on condition that she raises the money. He also suggests that she should play Nirit, the pretty heroine. ‘The fact is that while he was reading the script this Nirit/teased the pants off him. In bed at night it’s her, only her, that he undresses./Wet dreams, that’s what you’ve given me, you or Nirit.’ So Dita is lured into Tel Aviv’s Sodom and Gomorrah by a greedy producer, who will be seen as representing the downfall of good old countryside Zionism.
The best protection the novelist can afford Dita is the timid Albert Danon, who saves her from Dombrov’s schemes. From now on, the way is open for the two of them, the father and Dita, to live a decent family life, with a smattering of sentiment, a lot of cheese and Mediterranean salad for breakfast, and some sensitive (that is, subtler) sex, neither screwing nor intercourse, but practical, non-romantic love. We wouldn’t be able to appreciate Danon’s minimal presence, his Prufrock way of living among the unacknowledged, his longing for his son, for his dead wife, his relationship with his (Sephardic) friend, Mrs Bettine Carmel, his shy conversation with Dita, were it not all juxtaposed with Dombrov’s presence. If we like Albert, it can only be because we hate Dombrov: ‘He leers lecherously at her breasts – into her mouth he forces/a spoonful of ice-cream and pushes her hand between his legs, so she can/feel for herself what a hard-on she’s given him. As big as a donkey’s.’
The episode leaves poor Dita yearning for Rico. She wants sex, but with Rico, so she stands in front of her mirror and gets off on herself: ‘She looks at her body: it’s wild, it’s new, it turns men on/and it turns her on too.’ Or perhaps the narrator gets off on her getting off on herself. Not that he doesn’t hasten to protect her and the ‘good taste’ of his readers. Dita is not a bimbo in heat. Her fantasy is, matrimonially speaking, pure. So, with the quite long masturbation scene, very spiritual, very poetic, we reach a point where Oz again turns pornography into music. For what is more civilised than music? This is how she comes: ‘Her body sighs and she drips with juices like rare perfume/as her body is pierced by a tender tune.’ So petit-bourgeois, this airport fantasy of duty-free perfume and climactic music.
Lovely Rico, meanwhile, is having sex, too. In the ‘chapter’ entitled ‘The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes’, we meet Maria, a Portuguese whore, whom the narrator eagerly forgives for her unrespectable way of life:
She . . . had been thrown out of a convent
on account of temptation (which she had both committed and succumbed to) . . . The L-shaped room contained only some mat-
tresses, a low cupboard,
a washbasin, an earthenware jug, some tin
mugs. The four Dutchmen,
Thomas, Johan, Wim and Paul, drank a strange, sluggish beer . . . For a modest fee she would grant them ‘grace and favour’ in
her room. One
at a time, twenty minutes each. Or else all five
of them at once,
at a discount.
She is, of course, rather more than just a whore. She loves her profession as if it were an art: ‘She had a weakness for really young woman-hungry men/coming down off the mountains: they always gave her such a soft,/ maternal feeling.’ Romantic savages do not run wild in Bat Yam or Tel Aviv, and can only be found in nature, up in the hills. Maria’s purity transforms cut-price sex with the four Dutchmen into something lofty: ‘She insisted: no laughing. Anyone who had come here/to mock could have his money back and go elsewhere. Here/everything was decent and unsullied; there was a room for aching bodies/but not for filthy minds.’ Rico – authentic Rico, our true imago – belongs here for as long as he wants to avoid the corruptions of Tel Aviv. ‘Rico – was last, feeling for her warm soft conch and missing.’ But all’s well that ends well: ‘He lingered inside for eternity,/holding back not thrusting, mastering the surge lest it end/like a fleeting dream.’
Why is it that Oz seems to despise his young protagonists and prefer the ‘simple old ones’? Where does he derive his rigid division between virtue and vice from? One could call it puritanism, a reverence for the Father as the Bearer of Truth, and for ‘good old values’. This is why, beneath all their sexual ‘daring’, the novels are fundamentally conservative. And so the fictional narrator sighs and summarises life with the wisdom of an old crone: ‘He is almost sixty, this narrator . . . Since he was a child he has heard, impatiently, time and again/from Auntie Sonya, a woman who suffers, that we should be happy with/what we have. We should always count our blessings. Now he finds himself/at last quite close to this way of thinking.’ No distance here from Auntie Sonya, no ironical addition of what we call in Hebrew, invaded by Yiddish, Krechzen (‘sighing’, ‘complaining’). It’s all very straightforward: life is no picnic, screwing isn’t enough, one needs a little sympathy, and love of course, if possible. The narrator says as much in his own verses, in much the same tone as Auntie Sonya: ‘Here is how we could sum it all up. A man is at home. His son is not here./His daughter-in-law is staying with him for the time being. She/goes out. Comes back. She has someone in the meantime. He’s doing well,/sleeps with her when he’s free, a smart lad, who comes and goes.’ The story, for Oz, has always been the story of the Father – even when the narrator is young, his desire is always the Father’s desire. All Oz’s stories rehearse the greater story of submission to the ideological imperative and despise any attempt to resist it – hence his nationalistic positions, whatever he may say when he’s abroad, and his admiration for generals. When Oz lets the story loose (lets the ‘bimbo’ have her way, lets the world fall apart) he gets lost and falls back on romantic self-deprecation, becoming the famous hermit-figure in the Negev who admires some simple father who can prove, yet again, the point he is trying to make, which is not really a point at all: that the only way to redemption is the way of Auntie Sonya. But if that’s all it amounts to, why bother telling stories in the first place?