The Hill of Evil Counsel
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
Comment peut-on être Persan? La réponse est une question nouvelle: Comment peut-on être ce que l’on est?
—Paul Valéry Préface aux Lettres Persanes
Being in a generic way English or American has one big advantage: the self does not have the need to identify and project its image through nationality. As a rule the concepts of Americanness or Englishness have widened into a nullity that imposes little conscious obligation. One must find some other way of being oneself. On quitting the island my own grandfather thankfully dropped the task of being Irish. He did not seek to become English, but he entered the vague space where Englishness was hypothetically present, and there he remained. He did not even bother to practice that flip talent of dual nationality described by Elizabeth Bowen as being Irish when it suits and English when it does not.
In spite of the current fashion for “roots,” this tendency to evade definitiveness rather than to project it is still widespread, fortunately for the human race. The results for literature are of special interest, for the novel can stylize either approach. Nationality defines itself in art, inevitably somewhat in the manner of a pastoral. A Palestinian novel may be wholly Palestinian: Estonian literature consciously embodies the idea of Estonian experience. Nationalism chooses ideality; if it prefers the reverse, affronted clients may visit their displeasure on the head of the artist. Reproached for writing about Jewish thieves and prostitutes Isaac Bashevis Singer is said to have remarked: “So they want me to write about Spanish thieves and prostitutes? I write about the ones I know.” Class, more conscious today than ever, and allying itself to the identities of color and sex, in fiction often closely imitates the nationalist tone. The author from Huddersfield of “good working-class stock” imposes the image on his novel and its client, like the novelist who wants to tell us “what it means to be a woman.”
And in a sense Amos Oz has no alternative in his novels but to tell us what it means to be an Israeli. The Hill of Evil Counsel is a trio of interlinked narratives set in Jerusalem at the time just before the founding of the Israeli state. The third story—“Longing”—is told in the form of letters from a bacteriologist to a woman doctor friend in New York. His friends and colleagues, with whom he works on plans for a clean municipal water supply and the elimination of malaria, are an Englishman (with an Irish name) in nominal charge, and Dr. Mahdi, who also runs a private practice in Jerusalem. Dr. Nussbaum, the letter writer, has contracted a mortal disease; he knows war is coming, the supreme test at hand, but he will not be there to see it, and his friend the Arab doctor will administer morphine to ease his last hours.
Oz is a writer of great humanity and sensitivity. He conveys with a kind of light exactitude the atmosphere of…
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