Amos Oz

by Amos Klausner

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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

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["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...

(This entire section contains 1165 words.)

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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 bearing upon one another.

In "Upon This Evil Earth," the story of Jephthah is imaginatively re-created. Jephthah beseeches God for love: "God love me and I will be your servant, touch me and I will be the leanest and most terrible of your hounds, only do not be remote." Jephthah tries to think of himself as someone like Isaac and Jacob, who were also sons of their fathers' old age, but is continually reminded that he is "the son of another woman, like Ishmael."

Judges II tells us that Jephthah was the son of Gilead, the Gileadite, and a harlot; here he is presented as the son of an Ammonite harlot. The particularity of this detail gives the story of a divided man an even sharper focus.

We know how Jephthah was told he would not inherit his father's house, how he was driven out by the sons of his father's wife, how he came to live in the land of Tob, how the elders of Gilead sought him out as their captain in repelling an Ammonite invasion, and how Jephthah finally consented, vowing to sacrifice whatsoever first came forth from the doors of his house to meet him on his victorious return. And who could forget the terrible unfolding of that vow?…

We know the story, but perhaps we have not properly savored its bitterness. Nor have we truly reflected on the bitterness of Ishmael, of whom Jephthah, the perpetual stranger, is perpetually reminded. In Islamic tradition, significantly, the fate of Ishmael (Isma'il) has been pondered and somewhat ameliorated, and there is even a popular belief among Moslems that Isma'il, not Isaac, was the beloved son whom Abraham offered up in sacrifice. These rancors have not abated over the centuries: The children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael are today still locked in enmity.

The enmity takes many forms. It may be the friction between tillers of the soil and wandering herdsmen. "Nomad and Viper" starts out as the tale of such a conflict, but slowly changes shape.

As the story begins, conditions of drought and famine have forced the military authorities to open the roads leading north to the Bedouins. Foot-and-mouth disease, crop damage, and a rash of petty thefts follow in the wake of the nomads—also a mysterious music from the encampments at night. Geula, a not-so-young unmarried woman living on a kibbutz, stumbles into a Bedouin on one of her solitary walks. She is repelled and strangely fascinated by the man's dark beauty; she is touched by his elaborate courtesy; what she cannot seem to feel is the full measure of his humanity. Together, they share a smoke. Then the man begins to pray. Geula persists in interrupting him with impertinent personal questions; the Bedouin flees. Afterward, alone in the shower, shivering "with disgust," she experiences the strange recoil and twisting of her own thwarted desires:

"Those black fingers, and how he went straight for my throat…. It was only by biting and kicking that I managed to escape. Soap my belly and everything, soap it again and again. Yes, let the boys go right away tonight to their camp and smash their black bones because of what they did to me."

Notice the easy shift from "he" to "they"—hatred is a great simplifier. And yet, later, lying among the bushes, watching the planes overhead and listening to the sounds borne by the night winds, Geula is overcome by another feeling, a longing to be healed: "How she longed to make her peace and to forgive. Not to hate him and wish him dead. Perhaps to get up and go to him…."

"Where the Jackals Howl" is a strong, beautiful, disturbing book. It speaks piercingly—whether wittingly or unwittingly, I know not—of a dimension of the Israeli experience not often discussed, of the specter of the other brother, of a haunting, an unhealed wound; it reminds us of polarizations everywhere that bind and diminish us, that may yet rend us. (p. 35)

A. G. Mojtabai, "Perpetual Stranger in the Promised Land," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 26, 1981, pp. 3, 35.

Lesley Hazleton

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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 chapter 11 of the biblical book of Judges, and who swore that he would sacrifice the first thing to greet him on his return home if he were given victory over the Ammonites. The first thing to greet him was his only child, a daughter, and he sacrificed her.

Oz tells the story in the style of the desert: first the tale in brief, taking it for granted that everyone knows the bare bones of it but introducing it in any case as a matter of form and graciousness; and then the whole story, from before the beginning to the very end, told at length with a luxurious feeling for detail even in the sparse desert lives of its protagonists. And Oz adds one particularly terrifying detail to the original tale: the daughter hears her father make his oath, and purposely comes out of the house to be the first to greet him, wearing a bridal gown. Thus, she forces him to kill her, ensuring that no other man will ever be able to claim her. It is a grand and chilling tale, magically told, and makes one long to see Oz take more of the old legends and imbue them with the complex shadows of humanity.

Another Oz theme in these stories is the complex of Jewish emotions about Arabs. Oz's portrayal of this ambivalent attitude created a furor in Israel when My Michael was published, because in it the heroine has sexual fantasies about the Arab twins with whom she played as a child and who are now grown, in her mind, into terrorists. In the earlier story "Nomad and Viper," included here, a woman fantasizes about a Bedouin encountered in the kibbutz orchard, the fantasies moving from rape to seduction as hate and a vision of possible peace flow through her mind. It is a cruel, contorted vision of sexuality, set against a background of violence, in which the kibbutz men set out armed to teach the Bedouin a lesson, to stop the nomads from raiding their orchards and stealing from the kibbutz. But the story as a whole is a vivid and accurate portrayal of the conflict between the Jewish settlements and the Bedouin, a conflict still being played out today, 20 years later.

All the stories in this collection are powerful, in the way that the midday sun is powerful. But if you find yourself looking for the shade, for a cooler place from which to look at the emotional struggles of a country in the making, then you must go to My Michael and the stories written after it. (pp. 39-40)

Lesley Hazleton, "Tales from Israel," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 26, June 27, 1981, pp. 39-40.

Judith Chernaik

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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 moral debate about ends and means is argued endlessly but inconclusively….

Oz is without doubt a voice for sanity, for the powers of imagination and love, and for understanding. He is also a writer of marvellous comic and lyric gifts, which somehow communicate themselves as naturally in English as in Hebrew…. Those who prefer realism in fiction may find that the final story, a retelling of the Biblical tale of Jephthah's daughter, suffers from an excessively self-conscious style and symbolism. But the stories on the whole show remarkable artistry and control and demonstrate the born story-teller's gift of creating characters who are at once inevitable and familiar, instantly recognizable and larger than life. The reader coming to Oz for the first time is likely to find his perception of Israel permanently altered and shaped by these tales.

Judith Chernaik, "The Story-Teller in the Kibbutz," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4095, September 25, 1981, p. 1092.

Daniel P. Deneau

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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 menaces as jackals, nomads, storms, as well as lust and death within. And there is ambivalence: although Oz returns in several stories to the laughing, menacing jackals, which seem to be one symbol of "the accumulated menace outside," in the title story he describes, with sensitivity and perhaps compassion, a young jackal caught in a trap. In "Nomad and Viper" the thieving Bedouins provoke violence, but also, in a specific case … exert a romantic attraction which the author seems to respect. (pp. 82-3)

A mere enumeration may help to characterize the collection: at times straightforward realism, symbols, striking descriptions, fragmentary sentences, similes, effective repetition (sometimes Oz is praised for his lyrical prose), irony, fractured chronology, violent shifts or disjointed effects, and, perhaps most noteworthy of all, obliqueness or indeterminacy, to such a degree that some readers will be more mystified than pleased. For instance, in "Where the Jackals Howl" coherence-seekers will wonder about the interweaving of the story of the trapped jackal ("the child") and that of the seduced girl, seduced by a man who is equated to a furious stallion and who may be the girl's father; or in "A Hollow Stone" accounts of a storm-lashed Kibbutz are mixed with old Batya Pinski's history and current preoccupations, the publication of a collection of her dead husband's essays and her aquarium, filled with fish "both cold and alive," a "longed-for bliss." "Before His Time" begins with a detailed description of a dying bull and proceeds to glance at four members of a family whose lives hardly touch one another. In "Strange Fire" one is left wondering if a prospective mother-in-law, Lily Dannenberg, seduces her daughter's fiancé, to whose father Lily had been married briefly years before.

All of the stories are broken into numbered sections, the visual gaps suggesting the hermeneutic ones. Though each story deserves contemplation, "Upon This Evil Earth," an imaginative expansion of the story of Jephthah …, appears to be the most compelling. Jephthah is a man who does not love words, who has eyes which look inward, who worships the "Lord of the wolves in the night in the desert," and who belongs only in the "desperate wasteland" between Israel and Ammon. One wonders if the predatory Jephthah—apparently a hero—should be linked to the predatory jackals and Bedouins with which the collection opens…. The stories are exciting, not moving. They are grim, but not depressing. (pp. 83-4)

Daniel P. Deneau, in a review of "Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1982 by Newberry College), Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 82-4.

Allen Belkind

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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 khamsin—the fiercely hot desert wind—are usually on the verge of explosion in these tense dramas that occur there among the youth and the aging, driven by loneliness, their fantasies and their clashing ideas and temperaments….

Oz's intense and poetic descriptions, which powerfully evoke the sense of Israel's physical and emotional climate, and his concern with the inner truths of the isolated individual remind one of Crane or Conrad, his irony and sensuality of Lawrence Durrell. Despite some tendency in his longer pieces toward a looseness of structure and some abrupt shifts in point of view between the individual and the collective, Oz is a writer of great gifts, worthy of international recognition.

Allen Belkind, in a review of "Where the Jackals Howl and Other Stories," in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring, 1982, p. 400.

Nehama Aschkenasy

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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 demons from without are the mad jackal, the furtive nomad, and the murderous enemy soldier—the foes from the animal as well as the human world—that surround the civilized, sedentary community, threatening to infect it with rabies, plunder it, and return it to primordial chaos.

Though the beast and the savage are fenced out, fought off, and kept at a safe distance, they find their allies in the heavily guarded, seemingly secure settlement. In "Before His Time," they unleash dormant primitive and irrational forces in man's best friend, the dog, as well as in man himself…. (p. 58)

In another story, "Nomad and Viper," the nomads bring out the savage in the young kibbutz members who hotheadedly suggest "making an excursion one night to teach the savage a lesson in a language they would really understand." And the girl Geula, believed to have a calming influence on the hot-tempered young men, responds to the savage rhythm with rapture: "In counterpoint came the singing of the nomads and their drums, a persistent heartbeat in the distance: One, one, two, One, one, two."

A recurrent stylistic structure in many stories is the shifting of the point of view from that of the collective "we" (or the "I" who speaks for the whole group and alternates between "I" and "we") to that of the alienated individual. Society's point of view usually provides the framework for the story, opening and closing it, and sometimes also intruding in the midst of the main plot. The collective voice is suspiciously optimistic, over-anxious to ascertain the normalcy and sanity of the community and the therapeutic effect of the collective body on its tormented member. But the voice of the individual is imbued with a bitter sense of entrapment, of existential boredom and nausea, coupled with a destructive surrender to the irrational and the antinomian.

The stories are deceptive in their narrative fidelity to true-to-life characters and locations. While they present the dilemma of the disaffected individual pitted against a cohesive society founded on a sense of shared destiny and concerted effort, the ultimate raison d'être of these stories is not that of social realism. True, we encounter characters in the grips of sociopsychological conflicts…. But these diversified conditions of men are masterfully converted by Oz into a vision of the condition of man. What we ultimately perceive is not only the kibbutz member (and by extension, the modern Israeli) trapped in a small, enclosed area, surrounded by enemies, but man, caught in what Camus has seen as the inherent absurdity of existence, namely, the fundamental incoherence of the human experience, and the sense of man's dereliction in an alien world.

The eight stories collected here are not of even quality. Two or three stand out as the most richly resonant as well as artistically controlled.

Of special interest is "Nomad and Viper" which presents a variation on the main motif by focusing on a feminine character, Geula, which gives an added dimension to the theme of the human predicament.

Geula's name (in Hebrew "redemption") provides a clue to this character's literary function, and directs us towards the three levels of meaning which exist in the story: the national, the sexual, and the existential.

Geula can be seen as a representative of the generation that realized the Zionist dream of secular redemption in the form of political independence. To this limited extent, Geula's constant urge to get out of the confining, artificial borders of the kibbutz, and her heightened awareness of the savage element that closes in on the kibbutz reflect the modern Israeli's claustrophobic sense of living in a constant state of siege. It also reveals the Israeli's mixed feelings in his assessment of the national endeavor as an imposition of the Western rational heritage or terrain populated by nomads and savages, whose primitive, barbaric presence constantly challenges the validity and judiciousness of the Zionist enterprise. (pp. 58-9)

Geula plays the role of the "other" in this story. But she is not the "other" in the sense that Simone de Beauvoir attributed to the term, that is, woman as the "other" vis-à-vis man. Geula's otherness, or sense of alienation, as a woman, is commuted by Oz into an image of the human otherness in the existential sense of man's alienation from the universe as well as from himself. Geula, considered the voice of reason and restraint in the kibbutz, surprises herself with her strong attraction to the savage presence and with her sudden, intense awareness of, and response to, the chaotic and irrational. She thus experiences what both Sartre and Camus saw as the essence of the existential "absurd," the unbridgeable gulf between rationality and experience.

While Geula's feminine predicament is converted into the image of the total human condition, Lily, the heroine of the story "Strange Fire," is the traditional feminine temptress, a modern-day Lilith roaming the streets of Jerusalem at night on a mission of evil and destruction. Her "otherness" is that of the Sitra Achra, i.e. the "other side," the demonic and evil forces in man and in the universe.

"Before His Time" is a powerful tale, equal in its intensity to "Nomad and Viper." Again the themes of man's profound loneliness, his sense of entrapment, and the ultimate futility of human rational endeavor reverberate against the background of apparent social realism. (p. 59)

Oz's art proves that localism does not necessarily mean parochialism. The explosive and paradoxical reality of the kibbutz and modern Israel provides the necessary literary material in the writer's attempts to comprehend and epitomize not only the surface of this reality but the antinomian and the "other side" enfolded in it. Simultaneously, this realistic setting serves as an "objective correlative" in Oz's descent into the "heart of darkness" to capture and define the human condition. (p. 60)

Nehama Aschkenasy, "On Jackals, Nomads, and the Human Condition," in Midstream (copyright © 1983 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 58-60.


Oz, Amos (Vol. 11)


Oz, Amos (Vol. 5)