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In the Promised Land

Fima

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 the novel staring out windows, he “loathed the sight of a woman looking out of a window,” and tries to prevent it whenever it occurs in the book. In this at least, although by his own estimate he has broken all 613 commandments, he shows himself a traditional Jew.)

As Fima’s view outside the window is both external and internal, so the novel concerns itself with the sheer porousness of experience, the reciprocal impact of the personal and the national, the erotic and the political, dream and reality, the confluence of good and evil. It is this porousness that charges with meaning the mundane events of a novel in which, in conventional story-telling terms, little happens. Its insistent presentation of trivial daily events, of political discussions that faithfully reproduce recognizable arguments, its vignettes of Jerusalem life, make it seem, read from one angle, a work of talented, experienced, and intelligent realism. But Oz, like an architect who has built a house with an invisible living room, has made a thoroughly unconventional novel co-exist simultaneously with a work of more conventional realism. This world of whiskey-drinking and divorce, of newspaper-reading and passionate argument, is also the world of good and evil, of life and death.

In a gynecologist’s office, the meaning of the Holocaust is discussed; looking at an almond tree glittering with rain, “reminded…of a slim, pretty woman who has cried all night and not wiped away her tears,” Fima resolves “to be from now on a rational, straightforward man, a good man, freed from falsehood and all pretense.” In a café as he lights the cigarette of a woman he is flirting with, Fima is thinking about the settlers of the occupied territories:

In the middle of the day, in broad daylight, in the middle of Jerusalem, they’re already walking around with guns in their belts. Was the sickness implicit in the Zionist idea from the outset…. Does every battered child have to grow up into a violent adult…. Do we have to be either cripples or thugs?

The full gravity of human life is implicitly or explicitly present in ordinary moments; all events are consequential. And Fima’s existence is both separate from and indissolubly linked to other people’s, expressed with delicate economy in this eerie, sweet coalescence of dream and waking: “Fima woke to the touch of a warm heavy hand. He opened his eyes and saw his father’s brown hand resting like a tortoise on his thigh…an old, thick hand with yellowing nails…For a moment he panicked. Then he realized that the hand was his own.” The shell of Fima’s daily life is not separable from the sound of the infinite sea it contains.

It is in this fluid sense of relationship between seemingly distinct orders of reality that we can trace most certainly this novel’s evolution from the world of traditional Judaism, a world in which acts of daily life are perceived as hallowed, and talmudic sages encourage the faithful to thank God for such blessings as the ability to sit up and stretch, get out of bed, and feel fully awake. It may well emerge that Judaism’s lasting contribution to human thought is not so much the monotheism on which it prides itself (in any case, there seem to be a number of contradictory Jahwehs through the course of Jewish history; Maimonides’ is a very different god than Deuteronomy’s) as its exploration of the way the material and moral worlds reveal each other. This legacy glimmers through Fima’s smallest gestures; putting on a kettle, looking in a mirror are moral adventures; “He decided to…take a look at himself in the mirror. And he also decided to view his body not with disgust, despair, or self-pity, but with resignation.” Oz also observes the potential absurdity in this pattern of thinking with its comic but humorless hamletizing over such metaphysical issues as whether or not to turn on the lights, and whether or not to feel hungry for the third Sabbath meal. In one witty incident, Fima, on the verge of killing a cockroach, spares the insect because “he recalled that it was just like this, with a hammer blow to the head, that Stalin’s agents murdered the exiled Trotsky.” For Fima, at times reflectively, at times exaggeratedly, physicality is moral and morality is also physical.

This careful modeling of one world veined with another gives us not only a portrait of Fima, but something of the sensation of life in modern Israel, with its jagged conjunction of office buildings and antiquities, East and West banks, domestic comfort and wartime tension, prosperity shadowed always by an imagination of annihilation, where the sight of a train running from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem can unpredictably stir a parallel image of a murder train, where the Holocaust, like a macabre shadow state, shares the government of the country.

Along with the politics of the present, there is an unending confrontation with the politics of the past, a politics of the living motivated by a politics of the dead, of grief, shame, and fury, of a desperate struggle to bring the dead back to life. In an argument at Fima’s office over a Roman Catholic convent established at Auschwitz, Fima asks passionately,

What are we doing squabbling…about who owns Auschwitz? It’s already beginning to sound like an extension of our usual story about “ancestral rights” and “ancestral heritage” and “we shall never hand back territory that we have liberated.”…It really ought to become a Christian site…Let them go on pilgrimages there, whether to beat their breasts or to celebrate the greatest theological victory in their history…. As far as I’m concerned, it would be an excellent thing if they’d move the Vatican there.

Fima’s encounter with a settler is also an encounter with the invisible politics of the Holocaust. When Fima declares, “I think you’re all a plague,” the settler replies, “Why not save expressions like that for the enemy? It was groundless hate that brought down the Temple. It wouldn’t hurt all of us to try a little groundless love for a change.” Beneath the glib self-beatification, and the suggestion that love should be reserved for Jews alone, is a politics of pure futility, an attempt, as Fima recognizes elsewhere in the book, to alter the irrevocable. The settler’s aims are mutually contradictory. He wants not only the future; he wants the past back in its entirety, at least the past he imagines.

Fima moves through a country obsessed with its occupied territories, a country “fallen into the hands of a bunch of lunatics, who went on and on about Hitler and the Holocaust and always rushed to stamp out any glimmer of peace, seeing it as a Nazi ploy aimed at their destruction.” His days are punctuated with political day-dreams, in which like a child playing with toy figurines he convenes cabinet meetings, “dressing his ministers up as revolutionary guerrillas, lecturing them…saving the children of Israel whether they wanted it or not, and bringing peace to the land.” When his misogynistic gynecologist boss berates the office staff, Fima’s explanation is “We spend all our time trying to repress what we’re doing in the Territories…everybody’s at everybody else’s throat.”

On his progress through his story, Fima encounters a nearly representative range of political temperaments and opinions about Israeli-Palestinian relations, responses that are as much views of life as they are political positions. Fima’s political dialogues reveal to him again and again that people’s views of life are their political positions. His father, a benevolently despotic old-school Eastern European, justifies his politics through legend, belief, and imperial paternalism. Truth for him is made in the image of his own desire. He and Fima wrestle verbally over facts the father treats as trivial, such as whether Iran and India are Arab states. “Nu, so what? What difference does it make to you…. Have we managed at last to find a satisfactory solution to the tragic question of who is a Jew, that we need to start breaking our heads over the question of who is an Arab?” And when Fima, outraged, shouts at him, “We’re the Cossacks now, and the Arabs are the victims of the pogroms,” the old man replies, “Nu? What of it? So what’s wrong with our being the Cossacks for a change?” He even insists that Fima’s former wife’s son by another man is his own flesh and blood, his longing for a grandchild re-creating reality.

Another man, a voice of terror traumatized into brutality, replies when Fima raises the subject of peace, “We ought to kill them when they’re young…. There’s no such thing as peace between Jews and goyim.” Still another counsels giving back the territories for a real peace with guarantees, to share what both sides claim: “That’s real life, and it’s also just.”

In a brilliant and tormenting passage, Oz shows how the ongoing battle destroys even the innocence of children, when the boy Fima loves as his son is pressured by his friends to sacrifice “a smelly old Arab dog,” playing Abraham and Isaac with a bread-knife, a miniature mob enacting their own interpretation of theology. Not since Milan Kundera’s Karenin in The Unbearable Lightness of Being can I remember such a heart-wrenching animal in fiction.

Even a Hasidic Jew Fima runs into, with his childish sense of magic and spiritual privilege—“Every [Jewish] soul was present at Mount Sinai. This is a well-known fact…every Jewish soul shines forth like the heavenly radiance”—and his combination of missionary sincerity and moral totalitarianism—“No Jew in the world can be a nonbeliever…there is no such thing…as a Jew who does not keep some commandments” is an element in this political portrait of a nation. If law is perceived only in terms of divine commandment, then critical dissent can only be perceived as rebellion or apostasy.

But Oz’s carefully crafted account of the way that political and personal life permeate each other is too subtle a work of observation to allow the possibility of the political accomplishment of peace to seem like final salvation. The occupied territories, Fima realizes, are also inside Israel’s borders. “Inside Israeli society. The Territories are nothing but the dark side of ourselves. What happens there every day is just a concretization of the process of degeneration we have been undergoing since the Six Days’ War. If not before.”

Oz examines not only external politics, but the politics of personal life. With mutable moods of disgust and tenderness, both cynically and lyrically, the novel surveys the sibling kinship between the desire to love and the desire to govern. Personal and political life are married; we are erotic as well as political animals. If the novel’s world of personal relationships was accompanied by a Kama Sutra-like anthology of carnal postures, the most secret and suppressed of these postures would be the political position, as assumed by both its male and female characters. The men and women of the book are utterly necessary to each other, but also at odds. They manage to make love, but not to make friends, and in their ardent hostility are flickering glimpses of the other entwined worlds assembled in the novel–Israelis and Palestinians, dream and reality, truth and fiction. For the men, love is about power and the sensation of being victorious. The male friend for whom Fima feels the warmest admiration is a “hunter of married women” who with cynical relish describes his affairs to his wife and guests, demonstrating

how absurdly childlike was his own indefatigable urge to conquer, in which carnal needs played only a small part; how lies, mannerisms, and pretenses are woven into the very fabric of even true love.

And Fima himself is, as a lover, very much the kind of politician he abhors, a combination of the strategic and the messianic. When he fails to act on his impulse to seduce the nurse in his office, he sees the missed opportunity as resulting from a lack of leadership: “At that moment Fima resigned himself to the realization that, when all was said and done, he was not made of the stuff of great leaders who have the power to make history, to end wars, to heal the hearts of the masses consumed by suspicion and despair.”

Paradoxically, Fima cannot be married to his wife Yael during their marriage, and cannot be divorced from her after she marries someone else. In courtship, he is part proselytizer, part opportunist, not unlike the Hasid he encounters who wants to simultaneously save Fima’s soul and sell him a car. Fima is distinctly drawn to anguished women, like the abandoned wife Annette whom he pursues—“Her full, rounded form, her misery…stirred in him a hint of desire.” Fima theologizes his own motives, both his lust and his need to feel in himself the power of his own altruism; if need be, he will create the misery that beseeches salvation; he will starve a woman in order to glory in his own power to nourish.

If the men need to conquer, the women need to be indispensable. All the women in Fima’s life by turns celebrate his helplessness and childishness, and berate him for it. The men politicize their sexuality, and the women conceal their own lust for power under erotic masks. Nina, Fima’s lover, functions in his life as a kind of erotic social worker, arriving for their trysts with baskets of groceries and household cleaning supplies. Yael, his former wife, manages his daily life for him, listens silently to his inspired harangues, and unquestioningly aborts the child Fima is afraid to father, amassing an arsenal of resentment. The women’s power is in making themselves indispensable, and then demanding reparations for having given gifts for which there can be no recompense. And they strengthen their positions at these erotic negotiating tables by refusing to acknowledge any complicity in their own disappointments. Yael insists that Fima is solely responsible for the abortion of their child, though she herself was ambivalent, and went unprotesting to the clinic by herself. Annette is furious at Fima when he deceives her into bed, but she has labored assiduously both to attract him and to ignore his caresses until they are both well past the point of no return. And when Fima questions the nurse Tamar about her lichen-like ability to love unrequitedly a man who “hates the human race in general and women in particular,” and suggests that she disentangle herself, she replies, “How can I, Fima? I’m in love with him,” as if blind love is any more admirable than blind hate. Indeed, Tamar’s fanatic love for the misogynistic gynecologist has sinister murderous undertones, as she alternately abases herself and threatens him, a reminder that if making war contains components of both fantasy and will, so does making love.

In a momentary, unimportant quarrel between a passing couple that Fima observes on the street, Oz tactfully sets his parallel in place. We never know what the fight is about, but over-hear the boy offer, “All right, so let’s both give in” and the girl reply, “It’s too late now. It won’t make any difference.” Just as they are about to part hopelessly, the girl calls out to the boy, who rushes back to embrace her. The exquisitely judged small scale of the incident earns the novelist the right to its large implications.

If Fima illustrates how love is a matter not only of rapturous vision but of choice, it also illustrates that politics are created not only by the calculation of national advantage, but by an imagination of human life. Men and women, as Fima observes in one of his window-gazing sessions, can neither fully merge nor separate. Nor, the novel recognizes, can truth and fiction, good and evil, the politics of pragmatism and the politics of conscience. As the novel finishes, its hero, the neither perfectible nor ineducable Fima, falls asleep in a movie house, before either the film or his own story is over. The irresolution is more powerful than any theatrical catharsis would be, a brilliantly deft conclusion by a novelist who has set himself the large task of telling a story that has no end.

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