Scenes from Village Life
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £12.99
Visitors to Israel have reported how Hebron's Palestinians have hung netting above their heads to trap the waste thrown down at them from the heights inhabited by the town's Jews. This arrangement fits in a country reached in earlier times by a wanderer who figures in a 1973 novel by Amos Oz, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind - a charming and bemusing psychedelic work, a Sixties aftermath. The wanderer fetches up in "an Arab house whose occupants had fled", and "fled" was to be a disputed term in debates about the caesarean birth of Israel. Oz has borne honourable witness to his country's struggle, at times averse to or ambivalent about Israeli government policy. He is likely to be pained by the thought of that net.
Since the Seventies, many more books by Oz have seen the light, among them his plain-spoken autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The contrast in style between the account of his life and the early novel recurs with this new collection of stories, Scenes from Village Life, which lives up to its George Eliot-like title. If his youth has now left him, his imagination has not. Save for a coda of doubtful aptness, however, and a few Gothic elements, these can't be treated as tales of mystery and imagination, or the fantastic. The collection does not take flight or do magic, but it is an impressive and very affecting achievement, all the better for its relative sobriety, its sublunariness. All three of these books are excellently served by their translator, Nicholas de Lange.
Seven of the eight stories in the new book are set in the village of Tel Ilan, a pioneer settlement dating from the start of the 20th century which is developing into a resort town, with weekend and holiday homes, boutique wineries and art galleries. It has crickets, frogs, bougainvillea hedges. Jackals call from the countryside and are answered by the town's many dogs.
The writer loves the place, its people and its animals without making an idyll of them. There's not much talk of politics, but the people of the place are better than many of the measures that the state has designed to protect them. An evening of melancholy folk songs is interrupted by news of an air strike on enemy targets. The narrator of the story has "ambivalent views" about the raid. One way or another, his friends don't. Elsewhere, in an outstanding story, digging and scraping sounds come, or don't come, from the cellar of a house.
This tale has in it a live, if terminal politician, a terrific curmudgeon whose rants are terrific, too. He is locked into memories of his old enemies in the Knesset. Pesach Kedem shares the house with a widowed daughter, Rachel Franco, and a subtle Arab youth, Adel, who lives in a hut at the back, smoking, writing, doing odd jobs. Pesach suspects his "little Arab" of an attempted return, a reoccupation. "He hates us . . . They all hate us. How could they not?" Later: "So what if I don't like him? Nobody likes anybody anyway." This triangle consists of three beautifully rendered individuals, together with Rachel's beautifully rendered kitten - three weeks old, she explains, and hardly able to put one foot in front of the other - which rolls down the steps "like a little ball of wool, and then he makes such an endearing face, like a tiny suffering saint, but has already learned how to hide behind a cushion and peer out at me like a tiger in the jungle".
There's another house of horrors, or half-horrors, in this book, evoked by the eerie corridors and creaking doors of a rambling Gothic pile, one of the settlement's first houses, where an author of books about the Holocaust has lived. It is visited by an estate agent who imagined as a child that Holocaust horrors were still going on below stairs, and whose wife has a tumour. He is shown round by an inviting daughter of the house. The story is called "Lost", and a concern with loss, threats and the missing person is threaded through the collection. Castle Ominous gives the estate agent a sense of sweet dreams, of peace, and a sense that this relic of the pioneers should be pulled down. So much for the horrors of a possibly guilty past; it is not certain what this says about the horrors of the present.
The eighth story, "In a Faraway Place at Another Time", could be considered a coda that bears an oblique relation, at most, to the tales of loss and threat and events in Tel Ilan. The concern here is with a primitive community that goes to the bad in an orgy of orgies and decay, observed by an ineffectual government inspector. The mysteries encountered earlier in the book are only incidentally of the Gothic order. They are enigmas of everyday life, experienced by people you mind about. These stories, in their humanity, may do more for Israel than any of the decisions we have been led to expect of its leaders in the months to come. l
Karl Miller's latest book is "Tretower to Clyro: Essays" (Quercus, £20)