Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: BETWEEN FRIENDS, by Amos Oz

Between Friends, by Amos Oz. Published 2013 by HMH. Literary Fiction. Short Stories (Interconnected). Translation.

It's been a while since I completed reading a collection of short stories. They have a tendency to gather- they always seem like a good idea- but I usually never get beyond one or two. Not so with Amos Oz's quietly brilliant collection, Between Friends.

Between Friends is set during the 1950s on the fictional Israeli kibbutz of Kibbutz Yekhat, somewhere in the wilds of that young country. Its residents are a mix of young and old, from different backgrounds and experiences. There are young people and old, married couples, single people, parents, children, an orphan.

Kibbutzim (the plural of kibbutz) are collective farms established in the early days of the Israeli state to promote the growth of the country and its agriculture under collectivist principles and are often secular rather than religious in orientation. Kibbutzniks, as they are called, live communally or nearly so, participate in all aspects of running the community including farm work, industrial tasks and whatever else is needed. They are united by their commitment to the kibbutz and the principles that back it. Or at least, that's the theory. Oz shows that there are very distinct individuals running this collective farm, each with his or her own dreams and aspirations, which sometimes conflict with the overall mission of the place.

Oz's series of interconnected short stories focus on characters both at the core of the life of this kibbutz and its periphery. David Dagan is a teacher and ersatz spiritual leader, who tries to maintain the status quo among the people while answering to no one himself. He takes up with a 17 year old former student, much to the chagrin of her father, the kibbutz's electrician. He appears in nearly every story and has a profound influence on the lives of the kibbutzniks. Zvi Provizor is a bachelor in late middle age, works as the kibbutz's gardener and repository of bad news. Osnat deals with her husband's infidelity by writing letters to his lover, for whom he leaves her. Little Oded struggles with bullies and bedwetting and the harshness of collective life for children who don't fit in. Yotam dreams of making a life in Italy with a rich uncle, far from the kibbutz, but he can't quite bring himself to openly rebel. Or can he?

Oz tells the stories of these and other characters with delicacy and beauty. Each story stands on its own but together make for a lovely novel-in-stories about a time and a place that stand alone in recent history. To be honest I could not tell but for the blurb when the stories took place; the where is definite down to the smallest physical details but the lives of the kibbutzniks are disconnected from popular culture or even current affairs, save for Zvi's obsession with tragedies far away. That said, landscape is the real star of this show, both geographic and psychological. I felt like a member of this community by the time the book was finished. Pick it up; you will, too.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed a galley copy of this book from the bookstore.


JoAnn said...

I need to start reading short stories again... it's been too long.

bermudaonion said...

I almost always enjoy short stories when I read them so I'm not sure why I don't read them more often. This sounds fabulous!

Meytal Radzinski said...

The time period is recognizable by references to Israel's wars and political situation. Probably hard to pick up on if you haven't studied Israeli history... Have you read Oz's Scenes from Village Life? I liked that one a lot more, both in terms of the short stories and also I felt that Oz did a better job of creating the right environment.

And one question: what's your impression of Oz's writing overall? I've only ever read his work in the original, and I keep getting the feeling like his translators maybe smooth out his writing a bit...