Jews, Have Pity!

A Perfect Peace

by Amos Oz, translated by Hillel Halkin
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 374 pp., $16.95

Amos Oz
Amos Oz; drawing by David Levine

The true hero of A Perfect Peace—something which, we shall be unsurprised to hear, doesn’t exist—is a kibbutz, Kibbutz Granot, populated largely by ex-Russians and ex-Poles, and looking “as if it had been built out of blocks by an intelligent child.” The problems arising in this “place-in-progress” are listed in documentary fashion: the youth (or native-born) problem, the elderly (or settler) problem, the Arab problem, the Diaspora problem, the housing problem, the soil and water problem, the sex problem. Given the principled insistence on personal freedom, the last-named problem is unlikely to find a communal solution; it is where the elderly problem (those horrid old godfathers hugging power to themselves) overlaps with the youth problem (those long-haired feinshmeckers hooked on “murderous Negro sex music” and what old Yolek jeeringly calls “self-fulshmillment”).

The inhabitants of Kibbutz Granot—and of Amos Oz’s most engaging novel to date—are such as to make the place look like an intellectually up-market mad-house: either preternaturally loquacious, even oratorical, or abnormally taciturn, racked by violent passions or gnawed at by inward anguishes. The whole land, Major Chupka comments, is swarming with freaks. This is Old Testament country, as well as a modern national home; Gilead is not exactly theirs nor is Moab their washpot, and the troops of Midian prowl around, crossing the border to sabotage their water pumps.

What makes this state of affairs understandable to the outside reader is a modest effort of the imagination. What most alleviates and invites is the occasional touch of charming and apposite humor, conflating past and present. An Arab youth on trial in Haifa for peeping at a woman undressing in a Jewish quarter cites in fluent Hebrew the precedent of King David and Bathsheba, and is let off with an admiring caution. A man with a Hungarian accent is caught in the act of thieving and relapses into the bad old days, crying out in Yiddish as a policeman approaches, “Gevalt! Jews, have pity! Gevalt!” A Jewish businessman threatens to starve himself to death outside the Tel Aviv city hall unless the ex-communication of “the late philosopher” Baruch Spinoza lifted.

It is the winter of 1965, a winter between wars. Yolek’s son, Yonatan, wants to leave the kibbutz where he was born and raised, to get right out of the country; he feels that his life is passing fruitlessly by in a smoke-filled room clamorous with tedious argument. It’s not that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, though this wouldn’t be surprising when you live in a desert. Simply, Yonatan’s father is an old fighter, formerly a cabinet minister, and his mother, Hava, is an aggressive, excitable woman, bursting with character, and he isn’t allowed a life of his own. “Nobody is public property,” or the property of his parents, his wife, his kibbutz, his country, even. Yonatan is sure that his life is somewhere…

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