Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life is a gem of a collection of inter-related short stories focused on the people who live in the Israeli village he calls Tel Ilan. These are simple, as is village life, and yet complex with inexplicable portents, happenings, mishaps, and conflicts beneath the surface of things.
One story, simply called “Digging” never gets into exactly what the residents of a certain house think they are hearing in the middle of the night, but it sounds like shovels and picks, and this takes on a life of its own in the reader’s might as one wonders if he’s talking about Israel’s past or its future or its unresolved present–everything being undermined, nothing being what it seems.
The lead story, “Heirs,” is my favorite for its deadpan Kafkaesque conclusion. A pushy Jew who claims to be related to the prime occupant of a house has come down from somewhere in Russia to lay claim to co-ownership. Only one problem: the house still really belongs to the owner’s mother. Said prime occupant is irritated, infuriated, and then ultimately melts out of a kind of indifference and surrender.
In another story, “Waiting,” the village mayor receives a note from his wife that says, “Don’t worry about me.” He goes looking for her in all the usual places. He never finds her. Oz doesn’t say what doesn’t have to be said: she’s left him.
The Palestinian-Israeli dispute is treated lightly but not ignored in this collection. It’s more than background noise but only bursts into plain view once or twice. The focus really is on the simplicity of doctors, teachers, widowers, adolescents, etc., pursuing lives that are very elemental, full of routines, shifts in the weather from sizzling to misty, and marked by stray bits of news from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem but not much changed by larger events. This is a village that has all but abandoned agriculture for retail ventures and the various professions. It’s a village where the older generation still gets together and sings melancholy songs and tries, with no success, to keep its ailments and disappointments secret.
One must think of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson when reading Scenes from a Village Life. There are odd characters here, complainers, connivers, and lots of lonely, reflective, yearning folk.
A few stories don’t quite work. For me the last story, a kind of fable, was a disappointment and shouldn’t have been included. There’s an odd note of moralism in it that the other stories hint at but evade, leaving things more up in the air and ambiguous. That’s Oz at his most artful and his best, when he’s writing about something and you know he’s writing about something else, but he doesn’t tell you that, he lets you fill in the blanks…the haunting something else in life that always is the most important part of an average day.
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