Broadening the Curriculum: Israeli Author Amos Oz

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Authored by

  • Carol Jago
    Santa Monica High School
    Santa Monica, California

In an interview for PBS' NewsHour on January 23, 2002, Elizabeth Farnsworth asked celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz about tragedy.

 

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You once said that you hoped that the tragedy of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians would be Chekhovian and not a Shakespearean tragedy. What did you mean and is it becoming more Shakespearean?

AMOS OZ: Well, my definition of a tragedy is a clash between right and right. And in this respect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim. Now such a clash between right claims can be resolved in one of two manners. There's the Shakespeare tradition of resolving a tragedy with the stage hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails. But there is also the Chekhov tradition. In the conclusion of the tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive. And my colleagues and I have been working, trying... not to find the sentimental happy ending, a brotherly love, a sudden honeymoon to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, but a Chekhovian ending, which means clenched teeth compromise.

During my AP English Literature class's culminating conversation on Hamlet, I asked students to reflect on Oz's definition and to consider how the final act in Shakespeare's play contributes to their thinking about politics in the Middle East. This is a charged subject given the fact that my AP class includes Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu students. Our discussion was so rich and engaging that I decided to add Amos Oz's multi-genre novel The Same Sea to their outside reading list for spring.

Teaching The Same Sea

The Same Sea employs free verse poetry, lyrical prose, Biblical allusion, stream of consciousness, and multiple narrators—including a guest appearance by the author—to tell an unsettling story about life and love in contemporary Tel Aviv. In a kind of Hebrew Under Milk Wood, Amos Oz explores the relationships of six characters whose intertwined lives embody both cynicism and hope. The opening stanzas of the first poem set the stage for the story. As you might expect, it begins in media res.

 

A cat

Not far from the sea, Mr. Albert Danon
lives in Amirim Street, alone. He is fond
of olives and feta; a mild accountant, he lost
his wife not long ago. Nadia Danon died one morning
of ovarian cancer, leaving some clothes,
a dressing table, some finely embroidered
place mats. Their only son, Enrico David,
has gone off mountaineering in Tibet.

Here in Bat Yam the summer morning is hot and clammy
but on those mountains night is falling. Mist
is swirling low in the ravines. A needle-sharp wind
howls as though alive, and the fading light
looks more and more like a nasty dream.

At first attracted by the book's relative brevity (other books on their list include One Hundred Years of Solitude and Catch-22), they responded powerfully, talking with passion about Oz's vivid portrayal of his characters, and cited examples of his dark humor.

After the students met in literature circles to discuss the four books they selected from my spring reading list (see sidebar), I asked them to choose from among several open-ended AP questions that I had duplicated from previous years' exams and to write an in-class essay about their book.

Eric had other ideas for his essay. He wanted to write about Enrico, the son who left home after his mother's death to climb mountains in Tibet. I know it is important to teach students to get with the program and answer the prompt, but I've never managed to say no to a student who was keen to do otherwise.

What makes this a strong paper is both its clear focus and the "apt and specific references" (a phrase taken from the College Board rubrics) to Oz's text. Eric's own writing is "clear, precise, and effective." Rather than trying to explain the whole novel, he has carved out a key aspect of the book and mined it deeply. The following essay was written in approximately 50 minutes in class.

Student Essay

by Eric Kim

A man torn between his loyalty to his deceased wife and his desires, a young girl fighting to maintain her dignity while fulfilling her lusts, a son who is grieving for his mother while the world is calling for his return—all of these are part of the same struggle. Amos Oz's The Same Sea is the story of these characters. Perspective flows like water in a beautiful blend of poetry and prose. The story is without a center, but the turmoil of one character is particularly compelling. Enrico David journeys to remote corners in search of something intangible. Rico is torn between his grief for his mother and his place as a son and member of society.

From the beginning, Rico is removed from the happenings of Bat Yam. His willful isolation is the first clue to the conflict inside. Tibet itself has a mythological quality to it. Closely associated with Buddhism, the essence of spirituality is embedded with the land. Geographically isolated, Tibet's physical isolation is a parallel with Enrico's emotional disconnect from his father and the rest of the world. It is only appropriate that Rico's self-discovery occurs while he is alone. However, Rico is at heart not alone. In the passage "Rico shouts" there is a graphic description of the cancer that ate away at his mother: "crouching to dismember your liver pancreas and kidney / seeping into your spleen tear you creeping from ovary" (90). Rico experiences his mother's suffering himself. The passage's title reveals that it is Rico who is shouting; he is the one who is experiencing the pain. Grief and guilt are emotions that are at the core of Rico and the fundamental cause of his escape, but Rico is not alone in his suffering. Albert, the father, too is dealing with the loss of his wife. He visits a holy man, wishing to see the apparition of his wife. He leaves disappointed. Albert is also searching in the wrong places for resolution.

Rico frequently sends postcards to Albert and to Dita, his girlfriend. Acting as windows into his inner thoughts, the postcards are written less formally and more as a stream of consciousness. In one of his postcards he recalls a visit to a grave and creates a fantasy of the moments before his mother's death, "between bouts of hallucination, she had a moment of lucidity, like a hunted antelope... suddenly realized that this was her death, that they had given up hope for her" (174). Rico feels more compassion towards a young girl who died a hundred years ago than he did for his mother who he felt was a bother. The image of a "hunted antelope" evokes the feeling of helplessness. In this moment he realizes that his mother too must have been helpless. As he comes to terms with his guilt, he slowly moves closer to civilization. Images of "depths of darkness" (103) turn to "faint lights in the distance" (125), then finally to "neon signs in Sinhalese" (182). His moving closer back to civilization suggests that he has come to terms with his grief and is ready to return to his father.

Before the neon lights, it is his connection with a boy that is catalyst to his understanding and solace. Working in a run-down refrigeration plant, he befriends an orphan boy. The boy approaches from "out of the shadows" and every night is "reborn after midnight" (168). These qualities bring into question the actual existence of the boy. In some ways the Sinhalese orphan is the manifestation of Rico's feelings of abandonment. Both motherless, they learn to trust each other. After the orphan's disappearance, Rico wanders into a dance bar called Xanadu. The allusion to the idyllic beautiful place of Coleridge illustrates that Rico's escape is as ephemeral and false as the Xanadu of Coleridge's poem. Rico discovers the fallacy of this quest to find his mother or the orphan. With one force eliminated his desires to travel are subdued, and he gravitates back towards home.

Rico's journey is a physical one, moving from place to place, while the journeys of others are emotional. Even though Rico is removed from the happenings of Bat Yam, each story intertwines to make a whole. The "sea" is a pervasive symbol that unifies the characters. The same way that the sea is sometimes violent and sometimes tranquil, sometimes beautiful and sometimes dangerous, so are people. It is through Rico's struggles and those of the other characters that we see in essence that we all embody these qualities simultaneously, and so we are united.

Conclusion

In the interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth, Oz said of this novel:

 

The Same Sea is the crux of the matter. It's a novel about, precisely about every day life, about normalcy in times of madness, or to paraphrase García Márquez, it's about love in times of cholera. Israel of the coastal plain, where eight out of ten Israeli Jews live far removed from the occupied territories, from the fiery Jerusalem, from the religious and nationalistic conflicts, is unknown to the outside world, almost unknown to itself. But The Same Sea is set precisely in this Israel, which never makes it to the news headlines anywhere. It is a novel about everyday people far removed from fundamentalism, fanaticism, nationalism, or militancy of any sort.

Eric Kim had not read or seen the NewsHour interview with Oz when he wrote the conclusion to his paper. When I showed him the following excerpt, he beamed.

 

AMOS OZ: I wrote The Same Sea not as a political allegory about Israelis and Palestinians. I wrote it about something much more gutsy and immediate. I wrote it as a piece of chamber music. It's about the cast of six or seven or eight very different people who learn not only to live together, but almost to conduct a mystical communion between them, to penetrate each other in every way.

Resources

Spring Reading List

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

Narcissus and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Gutterson

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

The Same Sea, Amos Oz

The Life of Pi, Yan Martel