Panther in the Basement
The Iron Tracks
In his new novella Amos Oz tells a story he has told several times before, sometimes as autobiography,1 sometimes worked up into fiction. At its barest, the story is about a boy at a crossroads in his life: Is he to continue on the path of childhood, living out fantasies of violence encouraged in him by his immediate surroundings, or is he to break into the next stage of life, a stage at which he may be required to love as well as to hate, and at which questions may begin to have two sides to them?
The fact that the crossroads in the boy’s life coincides with a crossroads in the life of his nation—Panther in the Basement is set in Jerusalem in the last year of the British mandate, with war against the Arab states looming—gives the choice facing the young protagonist a political bearing (Is Israel to continue on a path of violent self-assertion or to reach an accommodation with its Arab neighbors based on give and take?), which Oz, to his credit, handles with the lightest of touches.
The fictional predecessor of Panther in the Basement, in Oz’s oeuvre, is Soumchi (1978; English translation 1980), which draws upon much the same situation: a boy, Soumchi, devoured by fantasies of violence against the British occupier; his ambition to become an Underground fighter (but also an explorer in darkest Africa); a meeting with a friendly British soldier which grows into exchanges of language lessons; accusations by other boys that by fraternizing with the enemy he has become a traitor to his people; and a first experience of falling in love, which allows him to bid farewell to his murderous dreams. So close are the similarities, in fact, that Soumchi can be seen as a sketch, marred by one or two moments of sentimentality, for the later book.
In Panther in the Basement, the name of the boy is not disclosed. He is known simply by the nickname “Proffy,” which his friends give him because of his bookish habits. The Englishman who brings so much trouble into his life is Stephen Dunlop, an army pay clerk. Dunlop comes from a clerical family; he speaks some Hebrew, but of a comically biblical variety which Nicholas de Lange, Oz’s translator, renders into sixteenth-century English. “Whither dost thou hasten?” demands Dunlop as he detains Proffy for being out of doors after the curfew. “Please, kindly sir, let me go home,” replies Proffy in his best English (“the language of the enemy,” he reminds himself sternly).
The relationship between Proffy and Sergeant Dunlop is one of the best things in the book. Dunlop, unattractive and lonely, displays an uncomplicated affection for the strange boy, which Proffy—whose own father plays sarcastic distancing games with him—returns, though he dare not admit it to himself.
The two agree to meet and exchange Hebrew for English lessons. To himself Proffy rationalizes these meetings as a cunning means for extracting military secrets from the enemy. Together they read Bible stories. In his readings Dunlop pays attention not only to the victorious heroes of Israelite history but also to weak and marginal figures—in marked contrast to the teachers to whom Proffy is exposed at his Hebrew National school. Dunlop thus becomes a moderating influence on the boy. He also takes on a mildly prophetic role. Once the British have left, he foresees, the Jews will defeat their Arab foes, after which “perhaps it [is] the Creator’s decree that [the Palestinians] should become a persecuted people, instead of the Jews.” Ruefully he quotes from Scripture: “Wonderful are the ways of the Lord: …the one he loves he chastizes, and the one he would uproot he loves.”
Their meetings, which take place over lemonade and crackers at the Orient Palace Café, are spied on by Proffy’s friends and lead to his public humiliation (graffiti reading “Proffy is a low-down traitor” appears on the walls of the apartment block where he lives) and thus to the soul-searching about patriotism and treason that is at the core of the book.
Though the voice of Proffy’s upbringing tells him that Dunlop is an outsider and an oppressor, his heart tells him that his response to the stranger is generous and good. When he subjects the Englishman to petty insults like refusing to shake hands with him, he is left with a bad taste in his mouth. Brought before a court consisting of his fellow “Underground” members, he denies betraying any secrets. “Loving the enemy, Proffy, is worse than betraying secrets,” replies Ben Hur, leader of the cell (in later life Ben Hur Tykocinski will become not a security policeman, an occupation for which he seems eminently fitted, but a property tycoon in Florida; Proffy will remain in Israel and become a writer). Only Proffy’s mother is prepared to stand by him: “Anyone who loves isn’t a traitor,” she says.
But a mother’s approval is not enough. It takes Yardena, Ben Hur’s attractive nineteen-year-old sister, to confirm Proffy on the path along which his instincts are already pointing him. Sent over one evening as his babysitter, Yardena cooks him a mouth-watering Mediterranean meal, effortlessly elicits from him all his Underground secrets, teases him for talking in the clichés of “the Voice of Fighting Zion,” and delivers some home truths, including: “Why don’t you start being a professor instead of a spy or a general?… You’re a word-child.”
Proffy does not truly hate the British, he merely wants them to admit they have made a mistake and withdraw. (“I thought of the British as Europeans, intelligent and almost enviable,” Oz writes elsewhere. “We had to teach them a lesson…and then—to conciliate them and win them over to our side.”2 ) Once this has happened, he can be a friend to Dunlop with a clear conscience, perhaps even a son of sorts.
He turns to his parents for guidance. If our enemies acknowledge they have done us wrong, he asks, should we forgive them? Yes, replies his mother—“Not forgiving is like a poison.” Yes, replies his father—but only from a position of strength. Proffy does not know whom to follow. Though his inclination is to follow his mother, the crucial problem for the boy-child—in both the autobiographical and the fictional variants of Oz’s story—is how to negotiate relations with his father, how to become his father’s son.
Without admitting they were mistaken, the British do indeed withdraw from Palestine, Dunlop the weak pretender-father among them. The Arab armies attack and are defeated; the United Nations recognizes the new State of Israel. In the middle of the night Proffy is awakened by his father, who lies down beside him in bed. In an unfamiliar state of emotion, weeping, he tells Proffy the story of
how…when he and Mother lived next door to each other as children in a small town in Poland… the ruffians who lived in the same block abused them, and beat them savagely because Jews were all rich, idle, and crafty. And how once they stripped him naked in class…in front of the girls, in front of Mother, to make fun of his circumcision…. ‘But from now on there will be a Hebrew State.’ And suddenly he hugged me, not gently but almost violently.
Never again, as long as the state of Israel exists, will the Jewish people stand defenseless before their enemies. Finding a way of reconciling this vow, virtually imposed on him by his father in this powerful scene, with the softer and sometimes traitorous urgings of the heart favored by his mother, all the while bearing in mind Sergeant Dunlop’s warning of how easily the persecuted becomes the persecutor, will be the task facing Oz’s hero as he grows up in a post-British dispensation.
The repeated reworking of the Proffy story suggests that it holds rich potential for Oz, both for self-exploration and for exploration of the psyche of Israel. Stories are a way of projecting ourselves into the future, he seems to suggest. Our lives are the actings out of the stories we chose as our own while we were still children; and likewise with nations and national myths. The notion of history as the fulfilling of prophetic myth is of course thoroughly at home in Judaic thought.
In the personage we call “Amos Oz” there is also, we should not forget, a large element of willed creation. Born Amos Klausner, son of a European-trained scholar of comparative literature, the author of the various rewritings of himself—as we learn from his own testimony—quit his father’s house shortly after his mother’s suicide, changed his last name to Oz (in Hebrew the word means power or vigor), and at the age of fourteen joined a kibbutz where, through a regime of work and study, he set about remaking himself.
As in the case of Proffy, Klausner the scholar-father with his Old World culture and ironic Diaspora mentality had wanted his son to become (Oz records) a “new Israeli: simple, blond, cleansed of Jewish neurosis, tough, gentile-looking.”3 He had sent his son to a school with strong National Religious leanings, where he was taught “to long for [the] resurrection in blood and fire” of the ancient Jewish kingdoms.
Jerusalem in the last years of the British mandate provided more than enough action to sustain this mesmerizing vision of history. “My Jerusalem childhood made me an expert in comparative fanaticism,” writes Oz. The city, one might suggest, was an unsuitable environment for a sensitive and suggestible child to grow up in. In the inner world of Amos Klausner, it was a place of romance and heroism, but also of hatred and violence. Although he does not say so directly, one ventures to guess that the break with Jerusalem allowed Oz to escape the intolerance and intransigence that have marred Israeli public life. In contrast to Jerusalem, Kibbutz Hulda, to which he retreated, stood for secularism and rationality, for the defeat of evil not by violence but by the old Zionist ideal of “labor, simple living, sharing and equality, a gradual improvement in human nature.”
Soumchi is not the sole early rehearsal of the Amos/Proffy story. Many of its elements are also to be found in the three long stories published in 1976 under the collective title The Hill of Evil Counsel. Again we meet the only son of immigrant parents in the Jerusalem of the 1940s trying to make sense of himself and his violent times. We read of his dreams of engines of destruction (rockets carrying explosives extracted from bottles of nail polish, submarines built to travel through the lava beneath the earth’s crust) that will bring about the defeat of the British in a flash; of his hero worship of Underground fighters; of the search of the family apartment by British soldiers who are overawed by all the evidence of high European culture; of fantasies of dying under torture rather than reveal Underground secrets; and the motif of the leopard lurking in the forest (or the panther hiding in the basement), an emblem of primitive power and specifically of the Hebrew state on the eve of revealing itself.
For example, in Under This Blazing Light: Essays (1979); English translation by Nicholas de Lange (Cambridge University Press, 1995).↩
Oz, Under This Blazing Light, p. 159.↩
Interview with Eugene Goodheart, Partisan Review, Volume 49, No. 3 (1982), p. 359.↩