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, 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 …