Perhaps the most acclaimed Israeli writer of his generation, and a fixture of the peace movement, Oz continues to surprise at the age of 73.
PARIS - What could be more natural for a writer than talking about his latest work in the comfort of the publisher of his books? But Amos Oz finds it strange, incongruous.
“Look at me," he says. "I am sitting in front of you, in this room, surrounded by all of these books, but talking only about mine. It’s ironic when I think about it. I mean, this is so much the opposite of…”
Of what? Of his long ago dreams. In a year, Amos Oz will have lived three-quarters of a century. At nearly 75 years old, he is unanimously considered the most important Israeli writer of his generation. Both for his fiction and memoirs – My Michael; Touch the Water, Touch the Wind; A Tale of Love and Darkness – as well as his essays committed to peace, How to Cure a Fanatic and Help Us to Divorce.
Perhaps, it is this feeling of achievement that drives him to look back to the past. It turns out that since his youth, Amos Oz would have given anything to become anything… but a writer!
“It’s even worse than this," he says. "Suddenly I left my house to join a kibbutz. I was rebelling against my father, since I hated everything he represented. For a long time I wanted to be his exact opposite. He voted conservative, I was a socialist. He thought that the land of Israel belonged only to the Jews, while I fought to share it with the Palestinians. He was small, and I wanted to be tall – as you can see this didn’t work out! My father was an intellectual, therefore I decided to become… a truck driver.”
Truck driver? Seriously? With his blue eyes, Oz studies his interviewer over a cup of coffee. “Yes, seriously… but after some time, I became disillusioned. The men of the kibbutz were tanned and strong. I was the one from the city, the pale and skinny one, I wasn’t good for that.”
An endless solitude
But, he admits that he gained the girls attention rather quickly. “To impress them, I started to make up stories, and also to write them.”
To lead or to seduce, sometimes we must choose. This is how fiction would take the place of trucks. This is how Amos Oz became a writer.
From this episode, this great Israeli author learned two lessons. The first is that “all rebellions are destined to failure.” The second, that the confinement of the kibbutz is a great laboratory for studying passion, weakness and human desire.
“Of course I used my experience at the kibbutz to write Between Friends," he said. "But the kibbutz is only a pretext. What interests me about this book, and in general in most of my writings, are very complex and very simple things. The feeling of emptiness, loss, fear of death, isolation and loneliness.”
It is a mistake to say that Amos Oz is a writer. He is in fact, like Janus, two writers at once. There is first the committed intellectual, the one whose essays and articles – including Black Box – confront the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fight against extremisms. But there is also – less visible perhaps? – a poetic Amos Oz, observer of the intimate and everyday life.
This is same one who is sitting in front of us, in the sitting room at the Parisian offices of his French publisher Gallimard, recounting his youth, those unlikely dreams of being a truck driver, troubles with girls… the one who constantly returns to this “incurable loneliness” that haunts his heroes in their kibbutz from Lands Jackal, to Between Friends, through Elsewhere Perhaps. “Think about Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This is what I see in my characters. They reach out to one another. Their fingers get so close, but never touch.”
A slight disappointment
Just millimeters away, these characters of Amos Oz, so beautifully close, and yet they never quite find each other. But doesn't he believe in this other “very simple and very complicated” thing that we call love?
"You're right," he says. "I write a lot about love, but in a non-sentimental way. Because love, you see, is not always a gift. It is sometimes an obstacle in life. "
What does he mean by that? He means we are seriously mistaken about love. "One of my illustrious compatriots, Jesus, believed in universal love. As David Dagan, one of my characters, he thought that everyone, with some effort, must be able to love his neighbor. He was wrong. Love is a rare commodity. I explain that in many of my books because none of us can truly love more than five or six people. On this subject, Jesus is asking way too much!”
An amused silence hangs, before Oz goes further inside the thread of his thought. "Again, Jesus doesn’t say: be fair to each other. Or: be respectful of each other. He says that you must love one another. Well, I do not need to love my enemy. What I want is to live in peace with him, that's all. Do you remember the old slogan of the 1960s, "Make love, not war”? Well, I have invented another one: "Make peace, not love."
Peace. Peace now. Isn’t it the name of the movement in favor of the creation of two states - Palestine and Israel – that Amos Oz helped to create in 1978? And what has become of it? Is he disappointed? "Obviously..." But he still believes that peace is possible. "Unlike universal love, peace, remains a reasonable goal. It just needs a little bit of patience...”
As for Israel, it is another matter of "slight disappointment." Because Israel, he said, is the “culmination of a dream. And all dreams once turned into reality become inherently disappointing. The same happens in other fields: a journey abroad, a novel or even, why not, a sexual fantasy. The only way to keep a dream intact, is never trying to make it come true... ".
We would like to know how he sees the political future, but Oz politely ends the parenthesis: "Shall we get back to literature?"
It's the shoes
That's where we return. To his books. To his memories. Once again, the conversation turns to childhood. About his father, who left Lithuania in 1933 and spoke 11 languages. About his mother, who refused in the 1940s to let her son learn a language other than Hebrew - "because, she said, if I learned a European language, I would be attracted to Europe and trapped in the deadly snares of this continent."
Finally, we go back to him, to the small Amos, an only child who was often forced to follow his parents to the countless cafes of Jerusalem. If he was patient, they would promise him an ice cream. "While they were talking between adults, I developed a strategy so that I would not die of boredom," he recalls. Again his eyes are shining. "I observed the expressions, the body language, the clothes, and even the shoes of these great people. Especially the shoes. It's crazy how much they tell us about their owner. If he is showy or discrete, poor or smug."
Oz recommends this game to all, and continues to play it to this day. "It is a very funny exercise, very informative, and can help you earn an ice cream! Today, rather than reading some bad newspaper, I practice it at the dentist or at the airport. Anyway, by dint of observing everything, I turned into a real little spy. You see, this is how I became a writer!"
From looking at shoes to writing books, is the path really so short? Discretely, we take a quick look down at what Oz is wearing. But on this day at least, his black moccasins stay desperately silent.