In a Nutshell: A wonderfully engaging novel from Amos Oz, which explores to some depth the theme of loss and longing, and the eternal search to find that which cannot be found. If you’re not a fan of the short form or the ambiguous novel then it would probably be best to steer clear of Scenes from Village Life, but even then I’d urge you to still give it a try. To miss out on such an unforgettable reading experience as this is a real shame. I’d even go as far as calling it a sin.
The biggest fear I had while penning my forethoughts for this novel, was that Amos Oz’s 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlister, Scenes from Village Life (Chatto & Windus) would end up being far too abstract and too puzzling to be enjoyable. It turns out that I was spot on. Scenes from Village Life is somewhat abstract and puzzling (on occassion), but thankfully it’s a heck of a lot more pleasurable (and rewarding), than I expected it to be.
Not really about village life in comptemporary Israel
If one is looking for a straightforward insight into village life in comptemporary Israel, then this isn’t the book to be looking at. Scenes from Village Life does give something of an impression of a nestled desert village, and of its local culture, but this is a novel that runs way deeper, because it’s not about village life per se, it’s more about the characters who inhabit the village (Tel Ilan), and the effects of that village on the inhabitants themselves. More importantly it explores the feelings of loss and longing that haunt the characters who live in Tel Ilan, and how these feelings direct behaviour and inner thoughts as desire drives to seek that which is missed and missing.
Echos of Chekhov
Oz states that Scenes from Village Life originated, like much of his fiction does, from a dream. He wanted to not only write about the village that he saw in his dream, but to also explore the themes of loss, longing and eternal searching.
Consequently, each of the stories in this linterlocking novel contains characters who are at a loss for whatever reason. Oz paints every one of these characters beautifully, and with a depth reaching sublime proportions. There is something wonderfully Chekohovian in the way in which Amos Oz presents his characters, and in the way in which he tells his stories.
In one of my favourite tales, Relations, Dr. Gili Steiner is seeking her nephew Gideon, who is scheduled to stay with her for a while in the village, following illness. He doesn’t arrive on the bus from Tel Aviv and as she wanders around the village considering the possibilites for his absence, Gili begins reflecting on her past relationship with her nephew. It becomes clear that Gili has a real longing for Gideon, and that it’s not just the loss of her nephew that troubles her, but the potential loss of the close relationship that she has with him, too. Does the nephew turn up in the end? Well, I hope that I’m not giving too much away by telling you that the story closes without conclusion, or at least any conclusion in respect to missing teenager’s whereabouts.
Another favourite story is Strangers, in which seventeen-year-old teenager, Kobi Erza (he’s the son of the village grocer, Victor) is trying to figure out the best way to let the village postmistress and librarian Ada Dvash know, that he has a crush on her. Not surprisingly, as is the case with most teenagers in this situation, Kobi outwardly projects his feelings through his behaviour and body language, and Ada – a divorced thirty-year-old – knows fine well, without him saying anything, that the young man has strong feelings for her. Kobi doesn’t know this though and his biggest fear is that she will pity him more than see his advances as a declaration of love. This is not what he wants. As he says himself:
The distance from pity to love was like the distance from the moon reflected in a puddle to the moon itself
It’s quite the predicament to be in, for both of them, and it all leads to an unforgetable climax, which is filled with regret and loss.
No real ending
What quickly becomes apparent when reading Scenes of Village Life – and what might have already become apparent to you in reading these afterthoughts – is that none of the interlocking stories, with the possible exception of one or two, ever reach a conclusion. However, this is no bad thing. Why should every story logically run from A to B and be rounded off with a neatly tied ending? What better way to impress the sense of loss and longing upon a reader, than to allow those feelings to linger, without conclusion?
And Scenes from Village Life certainly does impress a sense of loss and longing on the reader. I always like to feel something on a deeper level whenever I partake in serious literature, and reading Scenes from Village Life I felt as though I really did. And while I can’t interpret all of the allegory and hidden message that may have been entrenched in this novel, I came away with an undeniable feeling of melancholy and empathy for each of the characters, while at the same time experiencing no real sense of closure with regards to anything. These are hugely powerful emotions to come away with when reading a novel of course, and it takes a truly gifted writer to be able to embed those emotions.
A collection of short stories?
Although Scenes from Village Life will be seen by some as being a short story collection, I’d definately say that it’s much more than this. Amos Oz calls this a ‘novel in short stories’ and I tend to agree with the description. The way in which characters intertwine from story to story, makes Scenes from Village Life feel a lot more like a composite whole than most short story collections do. And what’s more, a true understanding of the novel’s major themes can only really be gained from reading the book as a whole. Much would be lost if the reader were to only ‘dip in’ to this book, as one often does when reading a short story collection.
Not as political as one might think
Given Oz’s fervour for political writing, one would be forgiven for thinking that Scenes from a Village Life would be soaked with political message, yet I didn’t feel that it was. Aside from a subtle nod in stories such as Heirs (issues over land ownership), Digging (animosity shown towards an Arab lodger), and Singing (brief mention of the Air Force bombing enemy targets), there is surprisingly little political reference, with the focus remaining mainly on the theme of personal loss and longing, and the eternal search for it.
Fans of foreign fiction do not need me to tell them of the value of a good translation. A foreign novel will often succeed or fail on the quality of its translation, and if the translator has not managed to attune him/herself to the author’s voice or been able to render into a target language an exact interpretation of what the author is trying to say, then the novel at best will turn out to be totally unlike the original, or at worst a most painful and awkward thing to read.
Oz himself says that Hebrew is a ‘very unique musical instrument’ (he likens it to Elizabethan English), and as such it’s impossible to translate. That said, it looks as though Nicholas de Lange has managed to pull off the impossible in Oz’s eyes, and given the English reader a novel which reads as beautifully and as poetically as I’d imagine the original in the vernacular to be.
Something pretty special
In conclusion then I’d have say that Scenes from Village Life is something pretty special. It’s definitely deserving of its Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist place, and after reading Scenes from Village Life it’s clear that one is in the presence of a literary master, not least because the writing is of such immense quality.
I will reiterate that I don’t think that Scenes from Village Life is a novel that everyone will enjoy, and those who don’t like short stories or ambiguous endings would be wise to steer clear. For everyone else though – dive in, this book is a real treat, and a rare one at that. There are not that many books out there that have the power to make a reader return in their mind to reflect on a book, but this is one of them. And even as I type these closing comments I still hear the village of Tel Ilan and its occupants calling to me. I can see that it’s going to be a long time before I forget this place.
:: What others have said about Scenes from Village Life::
- “[Scenes from Village Life] soon lures you in, like taking a walk in a new neighborhood which appears entirely unremarkable until you begin to scratch at its surface” – Mark Staniforth, Eleutherophobia **IFF Shadow Judge**
- “Scenes From Village Life is a brief collection, but its brevity is a testament to its force. You will not soon forget it.” – Claire Messud, New York Times.
- “Scenes From Village Life packs a kind of nauseating punch, as if you’d been smacked hard in the solar plexus and then sent for a ride on a roller coaster.” – Carolyn See, Washington Post
- “Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society, Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.” – Dan Vitale, Three Percent
Chatto and Windus | 14th July 2011 | £12.00 | HARDBACK | 272 PP | ISBN: 9780701185503
This book is being read as part of my involvement in 2012 with the ‘shadow jury’ for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. To find out more about this, and the judging panel that I’m involved with, please visit my ‘Shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize’ post.