by Amos Oz, translated by Nicolas de Lange
Harcourt Brace/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 322 pp., $22.95
Fima, short for Efraim, Nisan, the hero of Amos Oz’s new novel, is a present-day native of 1989 Jerusalem, a city where men (if not women), at least in the world of the book, are all “half prophet, half prime minister.” With more gift for rhetoric than for attentiveness, Fima is an encyclopedic talker. He debates politics with strangers in coffee shops, wakes friends for urgent monologues on the poems of Amir Gilboa, and electrifies imaginary cabinet meetings with daring analyses of Israeli-Palestinian politics. He even attempts, without notable success, to initiate philosophical dialogues with his penis.
Fima, like his country, is a tangle of high aspirations, mixed motives, and unfulfilled promises. He lives simultaneously a daily existence of comical physical squalor (even the cockroaches in his flat seemingly die of poor sanitation) and visionary beauty in what he sees in the world outside his window:
Fima watched the sun straining to free itself from the clouds. An elusive change was coming over the streets and the hills. Not so much a brightening as a slight quivering of hues, as though the air itself were smitten with hesitations or doubts…. There is a forgotten promised land somewhere here—no, not a land, not promised, not even really forgotten, but something calling to you.
Fima is romantically preoccupied with Yael, the ex-wife he drove away; he is a man who longs to be a father, but is so terrified of having children that he insisted on an abortion when Yael became pregnant. He is a would-be lover who doesn’t achieve a sexual consummation for the duration of his story. A political idealist, he is also a personal nihilist, who has concluded that “love leads inexorably to disaster, whereas relations without love cause only humiliation and hurt.” Absorbed by fantasies of leading his country to peace, he neglects his ailing elderly father, whose death he might have been able to forestall. Having failed both as a promising historian and as a promising poet, Fima works as a clerk-receptionist in a gynecologist’s office. But he has taken on the most challenging of all employment: adrift in his personal conflicts, citizen of a country whose fundamental ethics are in mortal danger, he is trying to live a good life.
He is hampered in his struggle by both the outer state of Israel and the inner state of Fima. The shell of Fima’s story is concrete, straightforward, almost stunningly ordinary. We follow Fima as he dreams, does cross-word puzzles, pisses, babysits, attempts to seduce women, engages in the incessant political debates that are a staple of Israeli life, and looks out the window. Fima’s window-gazing is almost an organizing principle of the book. When Fima looks out the window, he sees both outside and inside himself, and it is something of a tour de force to have made this almost involuntary daily activity so much a focus of the novel’s action. (Interestingly, although Fima spends a large part of …