Study Guide

Amos Oz

by Amos Klausner

Amos Oz Essay - Oz, Amos (Vol. 27)

Oz, Amos (Vol. 27)

Introduction

Amos Oz 1939–

Israeli novelist and short story writer.

Amos Oz is acclaimed for his stories of Israeli life, particularly those set in the kibbutz, which he writes with critical affection, having been a kibbutznik himself for many years. His first book, Makom aher (1966; Elsewhere, Perhaps), is a look at the singular problems and relationships experienced in such a community. It was followed by Mikha'el sheli (1968; My Michael), a psychological profile of the fantasy life of an Israeli housewife, which introduces Oz's controversial contention that Jews and Arabs have ambivalent, rather than purely hostile, feelings for each other.

Oz's themes include the destructiveness of Judeophobia upon both the hater and the hated, the interrelationship of all human experience, tensions between community and individuality, and the shifting border between the real and the surreal. Laga'ath ba-mayim, la-ga'ath ba-ruah (1973; Touch the Water, Touch the Wind) develops his ideas of reality. The characters are always in search of the elusive ideal, something to be found only in "another place," never here and now.

Oz creates his fiction from the political and historical heritage of Israel and its traditional relationships with surrounding lands. A repeated motif in his novels is that of borders which keep people both together and apart. Oz longs for the union of disparate peoples, though he understands the improbability of his wish. In a recent book of short stories, Where the Jackals Howl (1981), he uses his recurring symbol of the jackal to represent the ever-present threat to Israel from beyond its borders.

Many critics insist that Oz should be recognized as a writer of international stature, not only for his revealing portrayal of Israel, but also for the outstanding artistry of his fiction.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

A. G. Mojtabai

["Elsewhere, Perhaps" was a book full of unease that was not allowed to surface, the tension smoothed over by the voice of the narrator, a voice level and interminable, sometimes smug or starched with disapproval, but always composed, never shaken. The unidentified narrator was a man soberly respectful of the principles of collectivism upon which the kibbutz was founded, yet cognizant of the difficulties in living up to these standards, a spokesman full of injunctions to will power and exemplary tales of changes of heart. Any unsettling doubts were contained and tempered by irony. Why, for example, the narrator asked, can't a man of sound principles control his nightmares? Wherever one went, the narrator stood between the reader and the unfolding drama, much as a tour guide stands before, and defends against, a visitor's direct contact with a foreign scene.

"Where the Jackals Howl" is, in many respects, the double, the darker brother of "Elsewhere, Perhaps." This collection of stories [originally published in Hebrew in 1966], is only now appearing in English. It is, by far, the stronger book. It is also far more troubling. Here, the unease is directly confronted; there is no mediation, no muting, no equable light. This is a book of dark shadows and glare and, through the shadows, in and around and through each story, glides the jackal. As a literary artifice, the jackal—or the dispossessed-turned-jackal—is overdone, but as an ever-present feature of the geographical and psychic landscape, the jackal cannot be too attentively heeded. There were jackals, too, in "Elsewhere, Perhaps," but they were neatly fenced off…. (p. 3)

What makes the jackal so very menacing a presence here is that the threat is no longer simply external….

"Where the Jackals Howl" is a collection of eight stories, a few of them with a shared cast of characters, the rest with apparently nothing in common. But the absence of a common thread is only apparent. There is a consistent inwardness, and a curious, but necessary, lack of resolution to all these tales; they are closely linked by the way the author's mind works in each of them, turning and turning upon some question that yields no answer—a desertion, a hunger never to be sated, an unjust preference, God's inexplicable favor. The most haunting issue raised is that of exclusion, dispossession—the question of Isaac and Ishmael, why one son is favored and the other not. The issue crops up in many guises; it might be something as seemingly mild and commonplace as an elderly bachelor in the midst of families, or a son who can think of no way of distinguishing himself before his distinguished father, or a passionate suitor passed over for a heedless one. Placed together as they are here, these apparently disparate situations can be seen as having mutual...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)

Lesley Hazleton

Most of the stories in [Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories] were written in 1962 when Oz was in his early 20s. To someone unacquainted with My Michael or with the later stories, particularly those in The Hill of Evil Counsel, they are a fascinating introduction to an excellent writer. But to those who expect the later Oz, they will for the most part be a disappointment. They foreshadow much of his later work in theme, in imagery, and particularly in the evocative use of climate and landscape. But they suffer from the light of the midday sun. They seek the shadows too obviously, and too often cast none.

Oz knew what he was talking about a decade later. These early characters are indeed sometimes grotesque, their emotions too crude, their tales too obviously biblical in intensity. In the title story, as a jackal cub resigns itself to death in a trap, a founding member of a kibbutz rapes a young woman, then tells her that he is her natural father. In "The Way of the Wind" an inhumanly ideological father abandons his son in disgust when the son fails to show the courage his father expects of him—and the son kills himself rather than live with the shame of it. In "Strange Fire," a woman tries to seduce her prospective son-in-law; she reveals that his father was also the father of her daughter, and now she seeks in him that same brief flame that she found in his father a generation before.

They are savage and ruthless emotional beings, this founding generation, playing out their lust and bitterness on the flesh of their children. One longs for some subtlety in them, some sense of identity in their offspring. But the writer was still young, and could allow none.

There is one story, however, in which this theme works superbly: the longest and most recent one, "Upon this Evil Earth."… It is the story of Jephthah, the warrior judge of the desert who figures in...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Judith Chernaik

Two qualities are immediately apparent on reading [the tales in Where the Jackals Howl]: the consummate, self-conscious craft of the writing, and the seriousness and truthfulness of the content. Kibbutz life provides a common background and inspiration—for apparently everyone on a kibbutz has a story. Two of the stories analyse a stern father's grief for a dead son. Others deal with sexual revenge—for the ideology of the kibbutz somehow fails to solve this most persistent of human problems.

Themes and images from one story recur in others: sunrise and sunset, the changing seasons, the extremes of climate …, the contours of a landscape rich in symbolic associations. The jackals of the title story, in particular, change shape and significance in each tale, as if in counterpoint to the human lives portrayed. On occasion this natural symbolism is made explicit, and becomes human and political: "It happens sometimes in the middle of the night that a plump house-dog hears the voice of his accursed brother. It is not from the dark fields that this voice comes; the dog's detested foe dwells in his own heart." In other stories the conflict between Jew and Arab is traced back to Cain and Abel, the tiller of the soil and the shepherd, one loved by God, the other rejected.

Most remarkable is the compassionate irony with which Oz treats all his characters, the maddened and the reasonable equally. The political and...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Daniel P. Deneau

Although Oz has published two collections of novellas, Where the Jackals Howl is his only volume of short fiction …: seven of the eight stories were written in the early 1960's …, were published in 1965 …, and were revised in the 1970's…. In the long run, however, it makes little difference if the stories are revised apprentice work. Quality is quality, and Where the Jackals Howl should enhance Oz's reputation and widen his audience.

In one way six of the eight stories do speak of Oz's early preoccupation as a writer—life in the kibbutz, the type of life Oz himself has experienced since adolescence. For Oz the kibbutz does not appear to be a peaceful island: there are such...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Allen Belkind

Amos Oz, a leading sabra writer of Israel's second generation, is less concerned than his elders with optimistically depicting Israel's Zionist destiny in an esthetic of socialist realism and more concerned with scrupulously capturing the existential angst of individuals of the kibbutz in a tone of tragic irony that sometimes approaches the absurd….

The "jackals" motif, found everywhere [in Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories], becomes a central symbol that sustains the intense climate of siege and danger. The kibbutz … represents Israel in miniature; the hungry jackals lurking outside the compound are the ever-threatening Arabs. Inside the kibbutz, human passions, symbolized by the...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Nehama Aschkenasy

The stories [in Where the Jackals Howl] present a diversity of characters and human conflicts as well as a variety of locations; though most are set against the cohesive kibbutz community, we also get glimpses of the diabolic nights of the city, the bravado of the army camp, the menacing presence of the border, and even the stark charm of ancient Israel. However, these stories are unified by an overall pattern that juxtaposes an individual permeated by a sense of existential estrangement and subterranean chaos with a self-deceiving community collectively intent upon putting up a facade of sanity and buoyancy in order to deny—or perhaps to exorcise—the demons from without and within.

The...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)