Israel's Oz On 'Village Life' And Unhappy Endings

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Israeli writer Amos Oz calls his latest book a novel in stories. Set in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan, Scenes from Village Life consists of a string of interconnected tales in which the mundane routines of village life belie the fractured nature of the characters' lives.

In one story, the mayor's wife splits town, leaving behind a note and no clue as to where she's gone; in another, a doctor's nephew doesn't arrive on the bus she expected him to be on; and in yet another, an elderly man complains of a mysterious digging sound under his house.

Oz's characters each encounter an anxiety that never seems to get resolved. He tells NPR's Robert Siegel why the inhabitants of his village are so unsettled.

"These are stories about people who have lost something, or rather [hidden] something from themselves," he says. "They are searching for the loss in the attics and the basements; everywhere and all the time."

Oz's publisher has described the book as a parable of modern Israeli life, but the author says he was actually aiming at something more general.

"I think it's more about [the] human condition than about the Israeli condition. It's about love and loss and loneliness and longing; it's about death and desire; it's about desolation and disillusionment. The basic things," he says, "the simple and great things."

With such topics in mind, it's no surprise that Oz's characters rarely get a happy ending, and Scenes from Village Life is no different. The book's last story presents a kind of dystopian postscript that takes place in a village of poisonous vapors and putrefaction that isn't necessarily Tel Ilan (the story is called "In A Faraway Place At Another Time"). In the story, a healthy, handsome stranger arrives in the village — and the women decide they should kill him.

"It's a nightmare that I had some six or seven years ago," Oz says. "I wrote it just as I had it. It's not an allegorical story, nor is it a disguised statement about anything. It's just a rendering of a nightmare."

Oz seems to always be aware of the unhappy ending — both in fiction and in real life. Take, for instance, the recent homecoming of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after being held captive by Hamas militants for more than five years. Upon his release, Israelis rejoiced. But in exchange for Shalit's freedom, more than 1,000 of Israel's Palestinian prisoners were also set free.

"It was a happy ending at a very heavy cost," Oz says, "because for the release of Gilad Shalit, Israel had to release more than 1,000 ... convicted terrorists, including some mass murderers."

Oz is clearly skeptical of happy endings.

"I think stories with happy endings occur very scarcely," he says. "I think the story of Gilad Shalit with a happy ending is a happy ending for Gilad Shalit, not necessarily a happy ending for the bereaved families of the victims of those mass murderers."

Like many of his countrymen, Oz says he's worried about the future of Israel. But that doesn't mean he isn't confident about what the future has in store. Oz says that deep down, he believes there will be a historic compromise between Palestine and Israel — because there really is no alternative.

"There will be a state of Israel next door to the state of Palestine — not in love, but in peace and coexistence," he says. "And I think this solution is impending."

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