Saturday, 4 February 2012

Israel: Amos Oz finds Poetry in a Sea of Humanity

On arriving at a book to represent Israel, I was in two minds. One cannot consider Israel without considering Palestine and the wider Middle Eastern ‘problem.’ However, whilst I chose a book on the conflict’s impact upon Palestine in my previous trip as I felt this was a story that needed to be told, I felt that maybe more would be achieved by - rather than a mirror story set in Israel – picking a work that went beyond the conflict and into a more personal account of this country. As such, I am delighted that I came across “The Same Sea” by Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most renowned authors, and one who has been heavily involved in his nation's issues, critical of the wrong turnings on the road to a settlement, and ever hopeful of a humane solution.

In this respect, you might say that “The Same Sea” is the most timely of books to come out of Israel. Not because it addresses the issues of conflict, but rather, as Oz suggests at one point here, because it steadfastly does not: 'At times like these, quiet is the most precious commodity in the country,' his narrator observes. 'And let there be no misunderstanding, I'm talking about quiet, definitely not about silence.'

“The Same Sea” is a novel in verse - though some of the poetry is possibly lost in translation. Nevertheless, the presentation - brief chapters of varying length (and form), each a 'poem' in and of itself but, as different threads of one story, all connected - is very effective, and makes for an impressive whole.

The story is fairly simple. The central character is Albert Danon, a recently widowed accountant. His son, Enrico (called 'Rico') is travelling abroad - in the Himalayas when the book begins, then making his way through South-East Asia - reluctant to return to Israel. Rico's girlfriend, Dita, gets ripped-off by a film producer (she's written a movie script) and turns to Albert for help - and moves in with him. Albert fixes things, and the movie producer turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. Albert still misses his wife terribly. Dita's presence in the household is welcome but also causes him some inner turmoil - and then there's the other woman in his life, Bettine, who feels more strongly for him than he does for her.

Even the narrator pops up:

The fictional Narrator puts the cap back on his pen and pushes away the writing pad. He is tired. And his back aches. He asks himself how on earth he came to write such a story. Bulgarian, Bat Yam, written in verse and even, here and there, in rhyme.

It's all fairly simple, the short episodes moving back and forth among the characters, looking towards the past, present, and future. Yet for all that - or because of all that, because of the glimpses rather than detailed, continuous narrative, and the somewhat lighter touch of poetic rather than prose renderings - it is a completely gripping tale, these lives and what happens to them all of great interest. In true-life form, the story meanders back and forth, among the characters and in time, the everyday and the exceptional easily mixed, occasionally confused, yet with Oz never trying to explain too much.

“The Same Sea” seems almost unambitious, and yet in these small, intertwined fates and in this presentation is a more powerful and effecting work than many far longer novels. Very impressive, highly recommended.

(Complete Review)

And so, happy to have found such an extraordinary - and unexpected - gem on my travels, I leave Israel for neighbouring Jordan. I also leave fiction for a while as the next work is an autobiography of Queen Noor al Hussein (born as Lisa Halaby into a distinguished Arab-American family and raised amid privilege in the US, while visiting her father in Jordan she was casually introduced on the airport runway to King Hussein. After a whirlwind, secret courtship Lisa Halaby became Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan).

Having gone through the palaver of travelling in and out of Israel and Palestine over the past few weeks, I decide to pay a bit extra and fly direct to Amman in Jordan for my next leg. I take a Royal Jordanian flight from Tel Aviv Yafo airport at 8.25 in the morning (for US$281) and 45 minutes later I am touching down in Amman, the capital of Jordan…