New Israeli Fiction
One should present the great and simple things, like desire and death.
Something new has clearly been happening in Israeli fiction. Literary generations of course never really correspond to those symmetric schemes in which writers are seen marching past the review-stand of criticism in neat rows two decades apart; but now that twenty years have elapsed since the emergence of the first generation of native Israeli writers, one becomes increasingly aware of new Hebrew writers who have grown up with the accomplished fact of Jewish sovereignty in a state of seige, and whose attitudes toward language and literary tradition, as well as toward the social realities around them, are often strikingly different from those of their predecessors.
The writers who first came to prominence in the later 40's are generally referred to in Hebrew criticism as the Generation of '48, sometimes even as the Palmach Generation, and there is a certain justice in the fact that their literary effort should be linked in this way with a historical event and a national—necessarily, military—institution. Historical trauma was a first fact of manhood for many of them; public events had irrupted into their lives with all the imperiousness, the ugly violence, and the moral ambiguity that such events can assume in a time of war, against a background of ideological stridencies. The act of writing fiction, then, was frequently the direct critical response of a troubled individual consciousness to the political and social realities that impinged upon it, pained it, threatened its integrity. Consequently, the most common mode of Hebrew fiction throughout the 50's and early 60's was social realism, usually of a drably conventional sort, however strong the moral impulse behind it. Such writing was often primarily an examination of the problematics of self-definition through a repeated sifting of the various social, political, and ideological materials that were the particular circumstances of the Israeli self at a fixed point in time. Thus, the nature of the kibbutz, the army, the youth movement, the new urban milieus, was sometimes almost as much the “subject” of this fiction as the lives of the characters, or, at any rate, individual lives were conceived in terms of their entanglement in these social spheres, and the social setting in turn was implicated in the destiny of the nation.
Such characterizations of whole generations, to be sure, easily lapse into caricature, and in fact one can find a few exceptions to my generalization among books written by members of the Generation of '48, but the broad orientation of the group toward social realism seems to me undeniable. On the other hand, there were a few writers old enough to have fought in the War of Independence whose cultural background, personal experience, or sensibility set them quite apart from this group; who have been attracted to symbolic, parabolic, or expressionist modes of fiction; and whose writing looks beyond the historical situation to trans-historical questions about human nature, value, existence itself.
Perhaps the earliest and most peculiar Israeli book of this sort is Pinhas Sadeh's Life as a Parable (1958), the autobiographical record of a Rimbaud-like spiritual quest beyond the limits of conventional morality. One might also mention Yehuda Amichai's first volume of experimental stories, In This Terrible Wind (1961), his remarkable symbolic novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place1 (1963), and Yoram Kaniuk's Agnonesque first novel, The Acrophile (1961). Kaniuk's recent second novel, Himmo, King of Jerusalem 2 (1966), is an especially clear illustration of the distance between this middle group of writers and the Generation of '48 because, like many of the earlier Israeli novels, it is set in the War of Independence, but with a startlingly different perspective. (It might be noted that both Kaniuk and Sadeh are in their late thirties, while the typical Palmach Generation writers are now in their late forties or early fifties.) The substantive action of the Kaniuk novel—the eery, ambiguous love of an Israeli army nurse for a hideously mutilated casualty—could have taken place in any war, at any time. The novel is actually a kind of clinical investigation into the extreme limits of human love, into the moral ambiguities underlying our ultimate categories of life and death.
Pinhas Sadeh's second prose work—he published poetry earlier—provides an even more dramatic antithesis to the fiction of the Generation of '48. The first volume of a projected longer novel, it is called, apparently without either irony or allusion to Malraux, On the Human Condition (1967). Deploying its characters in a recognizable Jerusalem setting, often with persuasive fidelity to details of milieu, the novel and its protagonists conjure with such terms as the image of God and the image of man, divine jest and cosmic dread, infinity and finiteness, loneliness, lust, the hunger for beauty, and their dialectic interrelation. Sadeh's radically antinomian religious vision—both Sabbatai Zevi and Joseph Frank are invoked in the argument of his novel—is admittedly rather special, perhaps finally private, but his explicit insistence on using the medium of fiction as a means of confronting nothing less than “the human condition” is shared by the two most original and highly regarded of the new Israeli writers, Amos Oz (who is just twenty-nine) and Avraham B. Yehoshua (who is now thirty-two). Like Sadeh, like Amichai and Kaniuk, both Oz and Yehoshua are capable of precise observation of Israeli actualities, but their real interests, too, lie far beyond or below the particular structures of Israeli society.
At first thought, it may seem a little odd that Hebrew writers should permit themselves the “luxury” of contemplating man as a moral, spiritual, or even metaphysical entity rather than as a social-political agent at the very moment when the vise of historical necessity has gripped Israel's national existence more tightly than ever before. On reflection, though, one can see a kind of logic in this whole shift of perspective. For Israelis who have grown up with the State, harsh historical necessity has lost the upsetting impact of traumatic surprise. Statehood and armed confrontation with the Arabs are basic facts of existence, no longer new crises that throw into question the whole moral and political vocabulary with which one has been raised.
There is even a sense, I would argue, in which Israel's continuing existence as a sophisticated technological society and parliamentary democracy in a state of siege becomes a sharply focused image of the general conditions of life in the second half of the 20th century. Israelis live with a full sense—at times even a buoyant sense—of realized “normalcy,” committing their constructive energies to the ongoing development of a civilized order of existence, while the contradictory awareness of the menace of the abyss on the other side of the border has itself become a part of normalcy. The insistent presence of the Palestinian landscape, moreover, with its startling topographical contrasts and its complex web of historical associations, amplifies and complicates this sense of looming oppositions in the Israeli situation.
For Amos Oz, and in a more restricted way for A. B. Yehoshua, there is something uncannily semantic about Israeli reality. Topographical, architectural, even institutional actualities allude to things beyond themselves, and though both writers have been guilty on occasion of symbolic contrivance (Oz much more glaringly), one gets some sense that their cultural predicament has made symbolists out of them. One of Yehoshua's narrators in fact comments on the temptations of symbolism which the setting offers: “For everyone here is addicted to symbols. With all their passion for symbolism the Jerusalemites imagine that they themselves are symbols. As a result they speak in symbolic fashion with a symbolic language, they walk symbolically and meet each other in symbolic style. Sometimes, when they lose their grip a little, they imagine that the sun, the wind, the sky above their city, are all merely symbols that need looking into.” There is, patently, an acerbic ironic perspective here on the excesses of symbol-hunting and symbol-making; the ironic intelligence points to the admirable artistic restraint with which Yehoshua, in his second volume of fiction, Opposite the Forests (1968), develops a distinctive mode of symbolism that is quietly suggestive and for the most part not obtrusive.
Perhaps the best way to see what Yehoshua and Oz do with their local surroundings is to observe an instance of their treatment of Jerusalem. For Jerusalem, as the passage quoted from Yehoshua suggests, is the most portentously “symbolic” of Israeli realities, its streets and skyline and natural setting a crazy-quilt pattern of all the profound antinomies of Israeli life—modernity and antiquity intermingled; brisk Western energies amid the slow, patient rhythms of the Orient; incessant building on a landscape that remains fiercely unbuilt, or somehow in ruins; the seat of Jewish sovereignty hard against the presence of the Arab antagonist. Here is Yehoshua, in as long a descriptive passage as the taut surface of his writing will permit: “Apartment buildings all around, bared rocks, crimson soil. Half city, half ruin. Jerusalem in her sadness, her unending destruction. No matter how much they build, there will always be within her a remembrance of the destruction.” And here is Oz, with somewhat untypical conciseness, reflecting on the same setting in a novel where the presence of the city dominates the action: “On winter nights the buildings of Jerusalem seem like mirages of coagulated gray on a black screen. A landscape of suppressed violence. Jerusalem knows how to be an abstract city: stones, pine trees, and rusting iron.” Or, later on in the same novel, when political boundaries—they are those of the period before June 1967—give a special resonance to the symbolism of the landscape: “Through the defiles of the streets in Jerusalem at dusk one can see the mountains growing in obscurity as though waiting for the darkness in order to fall on the drawn-in city.”
The opposition between Yehoshua and Oz is roughly that between daytime and night world. Though Yehoshua's first volume of stories, The Death of the Old Man (1962), draws frequently on fantasy, with signs of influence from both Kafka and Agnon, his world is characteristically one of bright Mediterranean daylight, and it is instructive that the principal action in three of the four novellas grouped together in Opposite the Forests takes place during a khamsin, when the pitiless summer sunlight gives an astringent definition to surfaces, contours, colors, people. The swift staccato phrases quoted on the paradox of Jerusalem occur in the first-person narration of an aging, long-silent poet who has just come to leave his retarded son as an apprentice with a Jerusalem bookbinder. The city quite naturally becomes a voice in the frustrated poet's disheartened meditations on the futility of all creative activity, the ambiguity of speech, the eternal dead ground of silence from which language arises and in which it is absorbed again. The harsh peculiarities of the local landscape are a means of giving shape and solidity to the harsh contradictions of being a man, a speaking creature in a universe that cares nothing for speech.
Oz's vision of Jerusalem is also seen through the eyes of a first-person narrator, in this case a young married woman obsessed with death, the passage of time, the threat of violence, and dreams of sexual debasement. The perspective he tries to establish, however, for all his fiction is ultimately not clinical but mythic: Jerusalem the city surrounded by ancient mountains and enemy forces, as it is mediated through the consciousness of his protagonist, becomes the flimsy structure of human civilization perched on the lid of a volcano of chthonic powers, and so the “true” city emerges in the developing solution of darkness as a coagulated mirage, while the sinister darkling mountains all around prepare to pounce, to destroy.
The work of both Oz and Yehoshua raises an interesting question about Israel's peculiar cultural situation. Their concerns, as I have already intimated, are if not quite apolitical then metapolitical, seeking to come to grips with the ultimate facts about human nature and social existence which issue in political events, institutions, and conflicts. But given the explosively charged nature of Israel's political situation, it is not surprising that a good many readers should see directly political, even “subversive,” implications in this new kind of Hebrew fiction. Oz's books and the response they have elicited are especially instructive in this connection because his imagination has been powerfully attracted to visions of Dionysiac release which he has repeatedly translated into local social situations and political terms.
The plot of his first novel, Somewhere Else (1966) is a writhing tangle of adulterous and quasi-incestuous relationships in a kibbutz near the Syrian border. (Oz himself has been a member of Kibbutz Hulda near the old Jordanian border since 1957.) Some reviewers, reading Oz's novel as though it were one of the novels of kibbutz life of the preceding generation, denounced him for sensationalistic distortion, even accused him of attempting to discredit Israel's noblest social experiment. The real function, however, of the kibbutz for Oz is as a focused, dramatically tractable image of the fragile and precarious nature of all civilized order. His fictitious kibbutz sits under the shadow of enemy guns, with the murky realm beyond the border almost a kabbalistic Other Side, or, to use the animal imagery in which Oz delights, a howling, primeval “jackal country”—the title of his first book, a collection of short stories issued in 1965—that both entices and disturbs those who dwell within the tight geometric boundaries of the kibbutz.
The collective settlement, then, is more a convenient microcosm than the “representation” of an actual institution: a small, rationally ordered society, explicitly idealistic in its purposes, where roles and relations are sharply defined, and where forced proximity can serve as a social pressure-cooker for petty jealousies and instinctual urges, the kibbutz becomes in Oz a kind of schematic recapitulation of civilization, its self-delusions and discontents. The Israeli critic Gershon Shaked has stated this same point succintly in a cogent argument against the conception of Oz as a tendentious social realist: “His kibbutzim are human islands in a ‘jackal country‘ that breaks into the islands and destroys them from within.” This process of the symbolic transmutation of the political may become clearer through example. Here is a description of night on the kibbutz, in fact part of a short chapter devoted solely to such description, which occurs about half-way through Somewhere Else:
Now the crickets. The crickets exchange secret signals. The distant motor of the freezer-shed slips in among their voices. The swish of the sprinklers tricks you and falls into the camp of the crickets. The crickets are discovering your hidden places, giving away your fear in sound-signals to their friends who listen to them from the enemy fields.
And what is in the howling of the dogs? There is a dark nightmare in the howling of the dogs. One must not trust the dogs. The howling of the dogs goes whoring after the mountains.
The mountains are unseen but their presence weighs on the valley. The mountains are there. Wanton gulleys descend and charge against this place. Somber masses of rock hang by a thread on the heights. Their connection with the mountain range is suspect. A kind of muted stirring, a restrained patient murmur, glides down from somewhere beyond. The mountains are there. In absolute stillness they are there. In a position of twisted pillars they are there, as though an act of burning lust had taken place among the eternal elements and in the very moment of heat it had petrified and hardened.
This remarkable piece of disquieting prose catches up most of the important elements of Oz's distinctive world. One notes a strange interplay between descriptive specification and looming vagueness, between massive solidity and wraith-like elusive substance and sound. The stately, repetitive, almost incantatory movement of the prose points toward the revelation of some dimly impending cataclysm, prefigured here in the violent image of the last sentence. Oz is a poet of fluid and disruptive energies, and for him the solidity of the “real” world—whether natural scene or man-made object and order or human nature—is illusory, merely the temporary hardening of volcanic lava that seeks to become molten again, or, as in his vision of Jerusalem, merely a mirage of “coagulated gray on a black screen.” Significantly, the violent forces locked up in nature are linked with wild sexuality: the gulleys storming down on the kibbutz are “wanton,” the contorted forms of rock are testimony to a primordial past of vast orgiastic dimensions. Correspondingly, in the action of the novels and short stories, it is chiefly through his sexuality that man answers the call of the darkness “out there.” The howling dogs of this passage are a dramatic model of the human response to the darkness within. In proper biblical language, their cry “goes whoring after the mountains,” for one assumes it is an answer to the howl of their untamed cousins, the jackals, out beyond the pale, where human restraint and discipline are unknown, where every instinct to raven and destroy, to sate all appetites, is, quite literally, unleashed.
The scene, of course, has a direct relation to recognizable political realities. The mountains are forbidding not only because of their ontological otherness from man but because they are in Syrian territory, and they hide an armed human enemy waiting for the chance to attack the kibbutz. What should be noted, however, is the way in which the Arab military adversary has been completely assimilated into the mythic landscape, interfused with it. As a matter of fact, actual Arab antagonists do not appear in this passage at all (though they do frequently elsewhere in Oz), but nature here has itself become the invading threat—the spy network of crickets, the treacherous dogs howling up to the mountains—and the Arabs when they are imagined directly are merely extensions, embodiments, of an inimical yet seductive nature. Oz's imaginative rendering of the state of siege, in terms of its origins in his private world of neurosis, is an Israeli's nightmare of life in a garrison-state, but as a component of a realized artistic whole, it has very little to do with the actual conditions of the state of siege, whether political, moral, or even psychological.
All this needs to be clearly stated in order to see in proper perspective Oz's most recent book, his most fully realized achievement to date, My Michael (1968). The novel, which has been a spectacular best-seller in Israel this year—over 30,000 copies sold in a country where the Hebrew-reading public can scarcely number a million—has enjoyed the peculiar fate of being at once a succès de scandale and a succès d'estime. The critical esteem seems to me warranted because My Michael is an arresting novel in itself and represents an impressive advance in artistic control over its author's two earlier books. For Oz's brooding lyric prose, as one might infer even from the passage just quoted, is often in danger of breaking out into purple patches; and his intense desire to connect characters with elemental forces sometimes leads him into blatant melodrama or painfully contrived symbolism. (Some of the early fiction makes one think of the most sophomoric things in D. H. Lawrence, like “Nomads and Viper,” the story of a kibbutz girl who, repelled, frightened, and attracted by a dusky, potent bedouin, imagines she has been touched by him and is racked with physical revulsion, then is bitten by an all-too-phallic snake and dies in sweet waves of ecstasy.) In his latest book, Oz demonstrates a new sureness of touch in arranging a suggestive dialectic between fantasy and outer reality through the language of his first-person narrator.
Hannah Gonen, the protagonist, the wife of a graduate student in geology at the Hebrew University, is, as at least two reviewers have observed, a Madame Bovary of the interior world. Trapped in the flat bourgeois existence of a Jerusalem hausfrau, her isolation ironically reinforced by the good-natured devotion of her systematic, practical-minded, “achievement-oriented,” hopelessly unimaginative husband, she escapes into an inner realm of fantasy, compounded of early memories, juvenile literature, and suppressed desires, where she can reign as a splendid queen and abandon herself to lovers who exist solely in a subterranean sphere of the imagination. What Oz has done in this novel is to find a fully-justified location within character for that chthonic world to which his own imagination is drawn. As Hannah Gonen's narrative shuttles between outer and inner worlds, the quality of the prose itself oscillates—on the one hand, a parade of brief, factual, elliptic sentences whose flat rhythms and direct unqualified statements precisely define the deadness of the external world for Hannah; on the other hand, in her interior monologues, a haunting florescence of language, highly colored with emotive adjectives and vivid sensory imagery, run-on sentences spilling from fantasy to fantasy through underground caverns out of Jules Verne. It is precisely because Michael, her husband, has no access to this private world, is incapable even of imagining its existence, that conjugal sex itself is finally adulterous for Hannah. She clings to her husband's body in fear and desperation, as Emma Bovary grasped at Rodolphe and Leon, but he cannot release her from the prison of her isolation even when he gives her ecstasy. Thus, after a pyrotechnic description of the heights and depths of orgasm with Michael, Hannah tells us, “And yet I evaded him. I related only to his body: muscles, arms, hair. In my heart I knew that I was betraying him, over and over. With his body.”
Hannah's maddening desire to break loose from the trap of her own existence is, like the dark urges of the characters in Oz's previous novel, a response to the basic condition of civilization, but it is presented in a familiar social context, and this is what has given the book a certain degree of notoriety in Israel. For the Israeli, Jerusalem is the political center, the key historical symbol, and, since June 1967, the chief non-negotiable fact, of national existence. (One notes that the draft of the novel was completed just weeks before the war broke out.) In My Michael, however, Jerusalem, the illusory, unknowable city of congealed nightmare and suppressed violence, is the principal symbol for the protagonist's state of alienation. The single moment in the novel when she can pronounce the words, “I belonged,” is during a visit to a kibbutz in the Galilee, where “Jerusalem was far away and could no longer pursue.” But a glimpse of Arab shepherds on an opposite slope is enough to remind her of her lack of connection with the world around her, and at once a vision of the somber, forbidding Jerusalem of her fears rises before her again.
Oz thus puts the materials of the Israeli scene to darkly suggestive use in a mythic drama, but it is clear why some readers should feel at least uneasy with what he has done. Such uneasiness becomes acute in the response to his treatment of Arab terrorism in My Michael. Hannah Gonen remembers a pair of Arab twins, Halil and Aziz, with whom she used to play as a child in Jerusalem during the period before 1948. Halil and Aziz return now in her fantasies to break into her house and violate her, and it is evident that she is far more fascinated than frightened by them. She imagines them as having become terrorists, and it is in this guise that they appear in the climactic fantasy of destruction which concludes the novel, and which more than one reviewer quoted in outrage: Hannah sees Halil and Aziz gliding across the Judean Desert toward their objective within Israel, daggers in hand, sub-machine guns and explosive devices on their backs, so thoroughly part of the natural setting that their movements are pure feline grace and fluidity, and, like the crickets in Somewhere Else, their communication an exchange of guttural “sound signals,” not human language. The alluring alien twins are in some way an uncanny and piquant doubling of the male principle for Hannah; she imagines both their animal grace and their capacity for violence in erotic terms: “Theirs is a language of simple symbols—gentle touches, a muted murmur, like a man and woman who are lovers. A finger on the shoulder. A hand on the nape. Birdcall. Secret whistle. High thorns in the gulley. The shadow of old olive trees. Silently the earth gives herself.” Thus there is an almost exhilarating feeling of release in the explosion that culminates this fantasy, and the chill silence that afterward descends on the land, in the final sentence of the novel, brings with it a curious sense of relief for the protagonist.
Now, it is obvious that this dream of terrorists flowing across the desert in perfect catlike motion “that is a caress full of yearning” corresponds faithfully only to Hannah Gonen's fantasy world, not to the actual motley collection of unstable, deluded, and generally inept types that have tried to carry out the fundamentally ineffectual program of Al Fatah. As some of the response to the novel indicates, Oz is playing with explosive material in more than one sense by pulling these political actualities into the warp of a mythic confrontation. What should be noted is the peculiar double edge of his whole literary enterprise. In one sense, it can legitimately be conceived as a document, and a very troubling one, of Israel's state of seige; but at the same time, paradoxically, it bears witness to the complete freedom of consciousness of the Israeli writer, who does not feel compelled to treat the conflict with the Arabs in a context of political “responsibility” but may reshape it into an image of human existence quite beyond politics.
Avraham B. Yehoshua writes a much cooler, more understated kind of fiction than Oz, sometimes arranging his narrative materials in generalizing designs that place them almost at the distance of parable from the reader; but there are certain affinities in theme between the two writers. Several of Yehoshua's protagonists, like those of Oz, bear within them a deep sexual wound that humiliates them, drives them to acts of hostility. Without a trace of Oz's mythopoeic imagination or his interest in an erotic underworld, Yehoshua also often sees lurking animal instincts beneath the façade of the civilized self; his educated, ostensibly pacific, ineffectual personages frequently harbor a murderous impulse to destroy whatever stands in their way or whatever is associated with those who have given them pain. “Three Days and a Little Boy,” the last story in Opposite the Forests, is the account of a bachelor who agrees to take care of his former mistress's son and then struggles—in quiet ambivalence, never melodramatically—with the desire to do away with the child as an act of vengeance against its mother, who has dared to prefer another man.
Peculiarly, but most appropriately, this tersely-reported first-person narrative proves to be a kind of submerged animal fable. If we translate the rather common Hebrew names of the protagonists—all of them are graduate students at the Hebrew University and none is overtly “animalistic”—we find that Wolf the father brings his small son (whose garbled name remains a puzzle) to Bear, his wife's former lover. Bear has a new mistress, Gazelle, a naturalist devoted to the collection of thorns, and he shares with her an odd friend, a gentle, slightly daft herpetologist named Hart, who gets bitten by one of his snakes during the course of events because he refuses to crush it when it slithers away. Near the end of the novella, Bear tells the child a story about a bear, a fox, a wolf, a hart, and their wives who go off to the forest where they carry on “cruel wars.” The boy is especially moved by the little wolves that are drowned in the river; and at the end of the tale, when the teller decides to destroy every living creature, leaving only one little wolf-cub, we infer that an ambiguous reconciliation has been effected between the man and the child he thought of killing: Bear (is he also the ravening fox of his tale?) identifies with his rival's son, the wolfling, out of self-pity, and so allows him to live, in story and in fact. The scheme of the animal fable here may suggest how Yehoshua deftly defines an intricate constellation of ambiguous motives and relations with great economy of means.
Also like Oz is Yehoshua's fascination with destruction for its own sake, the desires civilization breeds in people to escape its imposed order and rational framework. Yehoshua treated one variant of this condition in an early story, “The Tropville Evening Express,” about a quiet little town that is pitifully de trop in a world of vast wars and so its citizens conspire to cause a trainwreck simply to make something happen in the dead air of their empty existence. More memorably, this time using materials from Israel's political situation, Yehoshua deals with the same problem in the title story of Opposite the Forests. A quick summary will reveal the direct thematic connection with Oz. The protagonist, a badly-blocked graduate student in history, has taken a job as a fire watchman at a JNF forest so that he can have the uninterrupted solitude to write an essay on the Crusades. (In order to see the full point of the story, one must keep in mind the comparison between Israelis and Crusaders frequently drawn in Arab propaganda.) The man-made forest has grown up over the site of an Arab village that was razed in the fighting of '48. One of the villagers, however, an old mute. remains as caretaker of the ranger's station together with an enigmatic little girl who seems to look after him. At first the new ranger strains every nerve watching day and night for a sign of fire in order to call in the alarm, but imperceptibly it becomes clear to him and to us that he really wants the fire to break out, and when the Arab mute finally puts the forest to the torch, the watchman is a passive accomplice, exhilarated by the all-consuming flame and by the vision of the long-destroyed village he sees rising in the tongues of smoke and fire.
The political application of the story is transparent, and for anyone accustomed to thinking of Israel in official Zionist terms, it may seem more comprehensively “subversive” than anything in Oz. Yehoshua, let me emphasize, is unswervingly committed to Israel's survival and to the constructive development of Israeli society—he is, of all things, Dean of Students at Haifa University—and the story must properly be seen as an unflinching exploration of the shadowy underside of ambivalence in Israeli consciousness within the state of siege. A more general human ambivalence is also implied in the story's use of the local situation; as we move in a typical Yehoshua pattern from the frustrations of impotence—here, the unwritten paper—to the thirst for destruction, we get a sense of the balked consciousness of civilized man secretly longing for the cataclysm that will raze all the artificial hedging structures of human culture. The steadily generalizing perspective of all Yehoshua's fiction is clear from the opening sentences of “Opposite the Forests”:
The last winter, too, was lost in fog. As usual he did nothing. He put off his exams, and the papers, of course, remained unwritten. Yes, he had long since finished hearing everything, that is, all his lectures. A chain of signatures in his dog-eared registration book certified that everyone had fulfilled his obligation toward him and had disappeared in silence, and now the obligation was left in his hands alone, his slack hands. But words make him tired; even his own words, and certainly the words of others. In the world around him he drifts from one apartment to another, without roots or a steady job.
The unnamed graduate student at once becomes an exemplar of contemporary futility, purposelessness, deracination, but with none of the self-conscious reaching for the effects of a Kafka parable that one finds in some of Yehoshua's earlier stories. The language is unpretentious, the diction largely colloquial, the references to the details of student life factually precise yet formulated to make their paradigmatic implications evident. The first sentences of the story introduce us immediately to the characteristic Yehoshua world, which is, in a word, a world of incompletions. Characters undertake all kinds of projects which they are incapable of seeing to an end—a thesis, a poem, a love affair, the building of a dam in Africa. As this protagonist's fatigue with language suggests, the individual is confirmed in his radical loneliness because the instruments of communication seem so pathetically inadequate, or futile. “Is it still possible to say anything?” asks another Yehoshua protagonist at the end of his disillusioning experiences. Most of Yehoshua's stories are models of the difficulties of communication; as we have seen, he delights in juxtaposing mutually incomprehensible figures—an Israeli student and an old Arab mute, a poet father and a retarded son, a bachelor and a three-year-old, and, in the fourth story of this volume, an Israeli engineer and a hostile, mocking African doctor. In each of these cases, communication of sorts does take place, but it is generally an ambiguous, troubling communication, sometimes with ominous results, destruction becoming the final language. I alluded earlier to Yehoshua's ironic intelligence; one is especially aware of its presence in the wryly comic effects of poignant farce through which he frequently conveys the breakdown of communication, the failure of human relation. An ultimate act of derisively inadequate communication is the visit paid to the fire-watcher in his lonely station by a former mistress, the wife of a friend:
Only toward sunset does he succeed in stripping her. The binoculars are still hanging on his chest, squeezed between them. From time to time he coolly interrupts his kisses and embraces, lifts his binoculars to his eyes, and peers into the forest.
“Duty,” he whispers in apology, with a strange smile, to the naked, embarrassed woman. Everything intermingles in the illumination of the far-off, reddish sun. The blue of the sea in the distance, the silent trees, the drops of blood on his bruised lips, the despair, the insipidness, the loneliness of naked flesh. Unintentionally her hand touches his bared skull, and recoils.
Such a bleak view of humanity as this would be utterly depressing were it not articulated with a quality of imaginative wit, as a critique of mankind's inadequacies, a sort of ultimate satire, that is finally moral in purpose. If, as I have suggested, there is some relationship to Kafka in the earlier Yehoshua, he stands at about the same distance from the German writer as Isaac Rosenfeld. Like Rosenfeld, he offers us in place of Kafka's neurotic visionary intensity a critical shrewdness in the manipulation of narrative, a certain muted intellectual verve, an ironic perspective in which sympathy for the characters and their predicaments is continuous with rigorous judgment of them. Because of this effect of broad critical overview in his fiction, Yehoshua is able at times to project with the greatest naturalness a general image of human existence out of the particular tensions, strains, fears, and ambiguities of life in an Israel surrounded by enemies. The suggestive connection between particular and universal is especially clear in a story called “The Last Commander,” which is included in The Death of the Old Man. This is how the story begins:
Since the end of the war we have been sitting in gloomy offices, gripping pencils and sending each other chilly notes on matters we regard as important. Had we lost, we would now be cursed. Called to account for murder, for theft, for our dead comrades. Having won, we brought redemption, but they must keep us busy with something; if not, who would get down from the swift, murderous jeeps, piled high with their machine guns and bands of bullets.
At once we are presented with a world that is based on Israeli reality but not a direct representation of it. Reflections and refractions of particular facts of Israeli existence glimmer through the story: the veterans are called on annual reserve duty to maneuvers in a blistering desert where two or three of the enemy, “wrapped in black,” are occasionally glimpsed disappearing into the distant hills; a staff officer descends in a helicopter from the pitiless desert sky to supervise the reservists; even the transition indicated in the opening sentence from military service to bureaucracy is an especially characteristic fact of Israeli life. However, only one place name, presumably Arab, is given in the entire story, the few names of characters offered have no clear national identity, and the war that has been fought is not specifically the war of 1948-49 but an archetypal “seven year's war” with an anonymous enemy who remains completely faceless.
The story finally is not “about” Israel's security situation but about human effort, will, and the strain of maintaining the disciplines of civilization in an utterly indifferent cosmos. The veterans are deposited in a completely isolated desert campsite where they find themselves under the command of an enigmatic officer named Yagnon who promptly sprawls out on the ground and goes to sleep, very quickly inducing his men to follow his example. Long undifferentiated days of languid stupor under the hot desert sun are finally interrupted by the airborne arrival of the company commander, who at once begins to put the men through their paces—setting up tents, building latrines, erecting a flagpole, charging, crawling, scrambling in full battle gear across the sun-baked terrain hour after hour in mock pursuit of an imaginary enemy, even forced to bellow out old battle songs around the campfire at night. Six days the commander works the men, and on the seventh day he allows them to rest while briefing them on a week-long forced march across the desert that he has devised for them. But on the morning of the eighth day the helicopter descends out of the empty sky to take the commander back to the base, and in a single impulse, the men wreck the latrines, overturn the tents, pull down the flagpole, throw off their battle gear, and fling themselves onto the ground, to return to their previous state of numbed somnolence. “Seven days he was with us,” the narrator comments, “and every day he engraved with white-hot iron. He wanted to make order, and what he brought was fear.”
If one tried to restrict the story to a purely political frame of reference, it would emerge as a parable of encounter with a fascist ethos. The writer, however, offers a number of important indications that the meaning of the events demands a broader and more complex perspective. We are made significantly aware of the presence of the elemental desert over against the sky, described at the very end as “the stretches of whitish glare called the heavens”; we note equally the descent of the commander out of the fierce blue like an implacable god, and the six days of creation through which the soldiers labor on their exhausting and futile tasks. The story might usefully be viewed as an ironic inversion of the great desert myth of modern Hebrew literature, Bialik's Desert Dead. In the Bialik poem, the titanic figures who sought to rebel against the Lord of Hosts lie struck to stone, massive granite forms cast by the divine wrath out of the stream of time. In “The Last Commander,” rebellion expresses itself not as in Bialik by an assertion of clenched will but in a slackening, a lapse into lassitude. The bodies stretched out on the desert sands represent an ironic victory over the divine imperative in having escaped from the agonizing and abrasive effort of life in history—the seven days of creation—to an unending anti-sabbath of leaden slumber. The story maintains a fine balance of perspective to the end; the narrator makes us feel the voluptuous attraction of sleep, and more sleep, for the exhausted men, but we are also led to see that this orgy of inanition signifies moral and physical paralysis, is finally a sour parody of death.
Both Yehoshua and Oz, then, achieve the widest reverberations of meaning not when they attempt self-consciously to be universal but precisely when they use their fiction as an instrument to probe the most troubling implications of their own cultural and political reality. One is tempted to see them as a kind of Faulkner-Hemingway polarity of talents, Oz having the greater range—in resources of style, in realization of character, in sheer mimetic ability—and Yehoshua a greater degree of poise, efficiency, artistic cunning. Either of them, I believe, would be an exciting writer at this point in time in any national literature. Their appearance now on the Hebrew literary scene bears witness to the ability of Israeli society to maintain under the shadow of the sword a complex culture that is both a medium of self-knowledge and an authentic voice in the larger culture of men.
1 Recently issued in English translation by Harper & Row, 344 pp., $6.95.
2 English translation published this year by Atheneum, 246 pp., $5.75.