Amos Oz Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Amos Oz’s short fiction focuses on the Jewish experience, especially in his homeland. It has, collectively, an impressive historical sweep from biblical times to the decades following the 1948 founding of the state of Israel. The main character in “Upon This Evil Earth,” in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories, is the biblical Jephthah (Judges 11-12); the main characters in “Crusade,” in Unto Death, are the aggressively anti-Semitic members of the medieval retinue of the Count Guillaume of Touron on their way from Europe to the Holy Land in a crusade of the year 1095; the characters in the three interlinked novelettes of The Hill of Evil Counsel are Jerusalem inhabitants concerned about the imminent end of the British mandate and subsequent war of liberation in 1948; finally, “Late Love,” in Unto Death, and the stories in Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories, except “Upon This Evil Earth,” are set on the kibbutz, an Israeli military base, or in the cities of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in Israel in the decade or two after the 1948 founding of the state. In all of these works, a main concern is the contrast between belonging and not belonging, between being an insider and an outsider, to the land, culture, or society.

Other themes and subjects that pervade Oz’s short and long fiction are, especially as connected to sociopolitical conditions, nostalgia for European culture and ideas in the midst of harsh Middle Eastern realities, the dangers of obsession and extremism, the interrelation between humanity and the natural world, the injuries done to romantic love and marriage by a harsh physical and political environment, the problems of the parent-child relationship, the contrast between one generation and the next, and the power of language and art.

These themes are expressed in articulated form. The short stories—not shorter than twenty pages—and novelettes all have numbered sections as well as subsections indicated by spacing. The only exception is “Longing” (in The Hill of Evil Counsel), which is epistolary: eight letters of Dr. Emanuel Nussbaum to his former sweetheart, Dr. Hermine (“Mina”) Oswald, from September 2 to September 10, 1947. Also distinctive—beyond Oz’s shifts in point of view (particularly in and out of the first-person plural mode), symbolism, figurative language, pervasive personifications, and sentence fragment notation of details—is his frequent biblical allusion. Writing in the very language of the Hebrew Bible, Oz is alert to and makes thematic use of biblical references and overtones in his stories’ titles, characters’ names, imagery, and plot parallels. He even has his own expanded version of a biblical narrative.

Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories

Damage done to marriage and, consequently, the parent-child relationship by the pioneering life in a new, hard land, permeated by threats, is a theme of four of the stories of Where the Jackals Howl, and Other Stories, as well as “The Hill of Evil Counsel,” “Mr. Levi,” and “Longing” in The Hill of Evil Counsel. In “Where the Jackals Howl,” what appears to be the luring of the beautiful Galila to an attempted lover’s tryst in his kibbutz bachelor’s quarters by the ugly workman Matityahu Damkov, using Galila’s interest in art—painter’s supplies gotten by Damkov from South America—turns out to be the surprising revelation by Damkov to Galila that he is her father. Her father is not her mother’s husband, Sashka, one of the kibbutz intellectuals.

Reader and child are likewise surprised at the end of “Strange Fire” (note the title’s overtones of perversity from Leviticus 10:1). Lily Dannenberg has not, spurred by her Eurocentric unhappiness with Israeli culture, capriciously broken an appointment with the father of her daughter’s fiancé Yosef in order to make a pass at her future son-in-law Yair Yarden. She instead pressures Yair into taking a walk around Jerusalem with her to reveal to him his father’s secret: Yosef had long ago been married for several months to Lily.

The title “Way of the Wind”—with allusions to Genesis and Ecclesiastes—suggests the caprice of the father, Shimshon Sheinbaum, who to be strong, like his similarly unshorn biblical namesake Samson, in his devotion to country and to political writing has abandoned his wife and son Gideon. He lives apart from them on the kibbutz. The allusive title also forecasts Gideon’s tragic attempt to live up to his own heroic biblical namesake to please Shimshon. The result is his becoming fatally tangled in power lines on the kibbutz when his army paratroop unit makes a jump and the wind shifts. Gideon ironically enacts his nickname, “Pinocchio,” by literally hanging from...

(The entire section is 1977 words.)