Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Cure for Fanatics

Amos Oz says he has never seen a fanatic with a sense of humour. Photo: AP      Amos Oz

How does one cure a fanatic? With wit and empathy.  Or: what makes someone into a fanatic: a lack of human feeling, a lack of humor, ignorance, rigidity. 

Amos Oz (born Amos Klausner, in 1939) has all the gifts of the anti-fanatic--imagination, humor, compassion, and a humane sense of the tragedies of history.   The writer, in Oz's view, is above all else the mediator of experience, the person able to examine both sides of a question with dispassion, the calm voice of imagination ("calm reason" is now, unfortunately, a chimera). 

I have been on a bit of an Amos Oz tear this winter, reading Rhyming Life and Death, Scenes from Village Life, Don't Call It Night, and Black Box--and his tiny, brilliant book How to Cure a Fanatic during the bleak, cold season here in the high desert. I love to imagine the warm roll of hills in Israel, the blue Mediterranean, the olive trees and--please God--the peace that must someday be the legacy of Oz's generation's struggles (on both sides of the question of Palestine--for as Oz acknowleges, peace will only come through  painful compromise).  Above all else, what shines through Oz's work is his intelligence and humanity.  On the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, Oz offers realism in place of ideology, a recognition of the pragmatic options available to both sides:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a clash of right and right. Tragedies are resolved in one of two ways: The Shakespearean way or the Anton Chekhov way. In a tragedy by Shakespeare, the stage at the end is littered with dead bodies. In a tragedy by Chekhov everyone is unhappy, bitter, disillusioned and melancholy but they are alive. My colleagues in the peace movement and I are working for a Chekhovian not a Shakespearean conclusion.”

It is better to be alive than dead.   In both his fiction and non-fiction, Oz comes down on the side of life, recognizing that idealism causes suffering, and that a life based on compromise--in love and friendship and politics--is not only sensible but necessary. When Oz wins the Nobel Prize in Literature--as he will, perhaps this year, perhaps next--I feel certain the Nobel Committee will speak of Oz's humanity (you can't go wrong  mentioning a writer's humanity), the vast scope  of his work (I count twenty novels and nine works of non-fiction as well as hundreds of newspaper articles, political commentaries, speeches, and so forth--translated into forty languages), and his commitment, since 1967, to peace in his country.  I would add to these notable qualities the characteristic of Oz's work that I find most attractive--the tone of self-deprecation with which his characters observe the world.  Oz's fictional landscape is full of provisional events and people who are  unmoored from certainty--his recognition of contingency is perhaps a reflection of, or perhaps the cause of Oz's humane and liberal political views.

Oz has been well-served by his translator, Nicholas de Lange--there is an elegance in Oz's prose, a simple grace that I admire. Here are some of the musings of the "old poet" in  Rhyming Life and Death: 

"He sits peacefully for hours on end without moving, placidly breathing the country air and smelling the smells, with a faint snort, chewing his bread pulp, dozing or wide awake, with the book by the young woman from the religious neighborhood lying open face down on his lap, thinking about her and wondering whether death can be entirely, unrecognizably different from life....Maybe that is how the poet sits all day staring with his thoughtful blue eyes at the swaying of the treetops and the movement of the clouds." 

Maybe it is!  I love this small passage for lots of reasons--the reality of it, the feeling of a human life at its end that Oz so effortlessly conveys, the delicate way Oz suggests that the poet's mind wanders--there's no mockery here, or pity, but there is compassion.

Oz portrays Arab lives, women's lives, the lives of writers and intellectuals, the lives of the poor, of the dispossessed and of the ambitious, all of them, with equal magnanimity--always with a recognition of the imperfect ways we negotiate a hostile world--and the world of Oz's books is, make no mistake, a hostile one.  Oz is no fool when it comes to the political realities of Israel/Palestine, no romantic when it comes to the enemies of his country, but he is above all else a writer who conveys hope, whose characters wish above all else simply to live. 

If you are new to Oz I heartily recommend Scenes from Village Life, a portrayal of Arab and Israeli lives in a small village--interconnected short stores, bright and clear as the desert sun.  For a more complex version of Oz's view of the world, check out Rhyming Life and Death, or Black Box, novels that feel like a memoirs, portraits of the artist as an old dog, books of wisdom and sadness, Biblical in their historical scope and ethical promise.  

When Amos Oz wins the Nobel Prize, please remember you heard it here first.

For a good interview with Amos Oz, see the wonderful Paris Review series, here

George Ovitt (3/20/13)

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