Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Amos Oz: To Know a Woman

I was born into a house of readers. I was also born to a dad with very strong opinions, and a dad who WILL NOT read in translation. (Capitals for emphasis.) I have my own strong opinions, and I am a Jew who has such strong opinions about Israel that I can barely stand to have conversations about the country, and have pretty much given up ever returning to a faith that believes in a country that is wedded to war. These two factors being laid out upfront, I should not be a fan of Amos Oz, but I am.

I was brought (dragged) to a lecture Oz gave at my college, and I was reluctantly converted: I realized that maybe, just maybe, there was gray, even in my black and white view of Israel and Israelis. That's what Oz says, at least. He is an amazing, passionate man, and his writing is true to form. It reads as though it was written in English, and his spoken English is lyrical and funny, as well.

"To Know a Woman" has the plot of a short story, and though it is the length of a novel, it is not boring. Yoel, the (anti?)hero takes early retirement from the Israeli Secret Service, potentially the best in the world, we learn. He retires due to a crisis in his family that leads to him moving and forming a sort of urban kibbutz with his daughter, his mother, and his mother-in-law ("the grannies"). Yoel makes all of his decisions with a retired spy's caution, and with a retired spy's inability to process the true emotional meaning behind anything. What is really going on with his daughter, Yetta- is she feigning her "condition"? How can he balance the alliances between the two old women? What do the mysterious neighbors want from him? And what is he going to do with his days when he runs out of things to fix around the house?

Yoel's brother-in-law once told him that "everybody has the same secrets. Whether it's really true or not I don't know, and I believe there's even a small logical fallacy there. Once you compare secrets, they stop being secrets, so they're ruled out by definition. But if you don't compare them, how can you know if they're the same or different?" Yoel is torn by this question, and spends much of the book ruminating on the nature of his and others' secrets. Oz is adept at leading readers into the world of secrets, and sameness, and difference.


Anonymous said...

Daughtee's name is Netta, and the quotation about secrets belongs to the father-in-law, not the brother-in-law. Otherwise, I agree, but I kind of feel you skimmed through the book rather that really reading it