BOOKS

Vital voices of Israel

ARABESQUES By Anton Shammas BLACK BOX By Amos Oz THE YELLOW WIND By David Grossman

GEOFFREY JAMES July 18 1988
BOOKS

Vital voices of Israel

ARABESQUES By Anton Shammas BLACK BOX By Amos Oz THE YELLOW WIND By David Grossman

GEOFFREY JAMES July 18 1988

Vital voices of Israel

BOOKS

When Israeli novelist Amos Oz received an honorary doctorate in March at Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College, he ignored the polite protocol that normally surrounds such events and launched into a biting and eloquent denunciation of Jewish attitudes toward Palestinians. “It’s not nice to talk about politics here,” he declared. But, he added, writers and poets perhaps have a better sense of what is happening to other people. “Writers— at least many of us—get up in the morning, drink a cup of coffee and begin to put themselves into other people’s shoes, or get into their skin,” Oz said. “In that sense, perhaps an author is, in fact, similar to an inge-

nious intelligence agent.” Three recently published books — The Yellow Wind, Arabesques and Oz’s Black Box — all originally written in Hebrew, share that quality of empathy and insight.

David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind is a journalistic account that uses many of the techniques of fiction to convey the predicament of Arabs who have been under Israeli military rule in the West Bank of the Jordan River for the past 21 years. Amos Oz’s Black Box is a novel that records, in a moving exchange of letters, the breakdown of a marriage. And Anton Shammas’s Arabesques, the work of a Christian Israeli Arab, is a complex evocation of life in an Arab village in the part of Israel known as Galilee. All three books have disparate aims and high-

ly individual voices. But, taken together, they cast a penetrating light on the tormented land of Israel.

Early in 1987, a left-wing Israeli magazine commissioned novelist David Grossman to write a 10,000-word article about the Arabs of the West Bank. Grossman, who speaks fluent Arabic, spent seven weeks on the assignment and eventually produced a much longer piece that took up a whole issue of the magazine. His report—passionate, anguished and full of nuance—quickly became a best-seller in his own country. He visited villages, refugee camps and a kindergarten and engaged in a heated debate with nationalist Jewish settlers on the West Bank. As well, with something close to repugnance, he talked to an Arab whose son had been involved in the murder of two Jewish couples. He creates an unforgettable portrait of an Arab people who have adopted the Jewish strategy of exile: handing down to the next generation the tenacious dream of a return to the homeland.

The Yellow Wind is a bleak book, a sobering chronicle of the humiliations of military occupation and the corrosive effect upon both occupied and occupier. Grossman writes that it is “a dangerous idea for us Israelis” to believe that

ARABESQUES By Anton Shammas (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 263 pages, $23.95) BLACK BOX By Amos Oz (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 259 pages, $28.95) THE YELLOW WIND By David Grossman (Collins, 216 pages, $23.95)

somehow time and the “fabric of life”— the economic and social ties of everyday living—will overcome enmity. He adds: “It corrupts and anesthetizes us. One day we will wake up to a bitter surprise.” It is a prophecy that has already found fulfilment in the current uprising of the West Bank Arabs.

At one point in Grossman’s travels through the West Bank, an old woman shouts at him:

“You people don’t know that we have culture. It’s not a culture of television.” Indeed, the great strength of Anton Shammas’s first novel, Arabesques, is the vivid way in which it conveys the texture of life and culture in an Arab village in what is now Israel. Being both an Arab and a Christian, Shammas is doubly a member of a minority. Arabesques, as the title implies, is a circular, filigree-like work, as dense and intricate as the many layers of personal memory. Shammas combines fable, fragments of autobiography and acute observations of village life.

By means of sudden, unexpected time-

shifts, Shammas brings together the perspectives of several generations of relatives and villagers—unwilling participants in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. Halfway through the book, the setting switches to the American Midwest, where Shammas’s autobiographical narrator is attending an international writers’ program. It turns out to be another laboratory to study Arab-Jewish relations. The shift is awkward, and there are moments when the book falters under the weight of its own elaborate structure. But in its evocation of the life of poor Arabs, Arabesques is magical.

There is nothing overtly political about Amos Oz’s Black Box. The brils liant novel begins with a I letter from liana Sommo, an Israeli woman, to Alex Gideon, the husband who divorced her seven years earlier. Alex is now living in America and is a world authority on fanaticism. Her letter unleashes a flood of correspondence that is by turns taunting, cruel, funny and lyrical. liana’s second hus-

band, Michel, a sanctimonious Zionist, enters the fray, as does Boaz, llana and Alex’s barely literate teenage son. It is a tribute to Oz’s skill as a novelist that the letters, improbably literary and eloquent, are always convincing. And the voices are so distinct that the reader immediately knows which character is writing the latest missive.

The two men are not just rivals for the loyalty of both liana and her son but ideological opponents as well. Ex-husband Alex, a haughty, disdainful academic, is a war hero who is also a liberal on the question of the occupied territories. Michel, self-righteous and tireless, refers to the West Bank as “the liberated territories” and combines piety with an ability to make large profits in real estate. But both men, in revealing their frailties, become deeply sympathetic characters. Against the troubled backdrop of Israel’s struggles, Black Box is, at least on a personal level, a profoundly affecting story of reconciliation.

It is unfair to reduce literature to a fictionalized explication of current events. But The Yellow Wind, Arabesques and Black Box transcend that limitation and show that as Israel grows more embattled, the voice of the writer—and the power of individual conscience-become all the more vital.

-GEOFFREY JAMES