Israel, just before the Six-Day War. On a kibbutz, the founders of Israel and their children come to terms with their land and with each other. The messianic father exults in accomplishments that had once been only dreams; the son longs to establish an identity apart from his father; the fragile young wife is out of touch with reality; and the gifted and charismatic "outsider" seethes with emotion. Through the interplay of these brilliantly realized characters, Oz evokes a universal drama.
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About the Author
AMOS OZ (1939 – 2018) was born in Jerusalem. He was the recipient of the Prix Femina, the Frankfurt Peace Prize, the Goethe Prize, the Primo Levi Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award, among other international honors. His work has been translated into forty-four languages.
Date of Birth:May 4, 1939
Date of Death:December 28, 2018
Place of Birth:Jerusalem
Place of Death:Tel Aviv, Israel
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One day a man may just pick up and walk out. What he leaves behind stays behind. What's left behind has nothing to stare at but his back. In the winter of 1965 Yonatan Lifshitz decided to leave his wife and the kibbutz on which he had been born and raised. He had finally made up his mind to run away and start a new life.
All through his childhood and adolescence, and for all his years in the army, he had been hemmed in by a tight little circle of men and women who had been interfering every step of the way. He had begun to feel they were keeping him from something and that he mustn't let them do it any more. Often, when they sat around talking in their usual way of some "positive development" or "negative phenomenon," he could barely grasp what the words meant. Sometimes when he stood by himself at a window toward the close of day to watch the birds fly off into the twilight, he calmly accepted the certainty that these birds will all die in the end. Should an announcer on the evening news speak of "grave indications," he would whisper to himself, So what? If, while taking an afternoon ramble by the burned-out cypress trees at the far end of the kibbutz, he should run into someone who asked what he was doing there, he would say, as if loath to reply, "Oh, I'm just walking around." Yet a moment later he would ask himself, "What am I doing here?"
A splendid fellow, they said of him on the kibbutz. If only he weren't such an introvert. But that's the way he is, they said. A sensitive soul.
Now, at twenty-six, of a reserved, or was it pensive, demeanor, he found himself longing to be alone at last, entirely alone, to find for himself what it was all about. There were times he felt his whole life passing by in a clamorous, smoke-filled room where a tedious argument about some bizarre matter dragged endlessly on. He neither knew what this argument was about nor wished to take part in it. The only thing he wanted was to pick up and walk out, to go someplace else, a place where he was waited for — and would not be waited for forever. Benya Trotsky — whom Yonatan had never seen, not even in a photograph — had run away from the kibbutz and from the country in 1939, six weeks before Yonatan was born. He was a raving theoretician, a fiery student from Kharkov who had chosen to become a conscientious laborer in a stone quarry in the Upper Galilee. Then he lived for a while in our kibbutz, where, against his principles, he fell in love with Hava, Yonatan's mother; he loved her in the most honored Russian fashion — with tears, oaths, and feverish confessions. It was too late, for Hava was already pregnant by Yolek, and had moved into his cabin at the far end of the settlement.
One evening, at the end of that winter, after endless complications, letters, threatened suicides, hysterical cries behind the hayloft, group discussions, efforts to find a reasonable solution — after a nervous breakdown and a discreet medical treatment — it came this Trotsky's turn to stand guard duty. Armed with the kibbutz's antique revolver, he had faithfully watched over us until the break of dawn, when, stricken by ultimate despair, he lay in wait for her in the bushes by the laundry room. Leaping out he fired at her at close range. Then, with the piercing howl of a shot dog, he ran blindly to the cowshed, where he fired twice at Yolek, who was finishing the night milking, and once at Stakhanov, our only bull. With startled kibbutzniks, roused from their beds by the shots, now hot on his heels, the wretched man dived behind a pile of manure and aimed the last bullet into his own brain.
All those shots had missed their targets, and not a single drop of blood had been shed, yet the lovesick youth fled the kibbutz, and even the country. He ended up a hotel tycoon in Miami Beach, a holiday resort in East America. Once he sent us a large donation for the construction of a music room. At another time he wrote us a letter in a strange Hebrew. In this he aspired, or threatened, or simply volunteered, to be Yonatan Lifshitz's real father.
On the bookshelf in his parents' home, hidden among the pages of an old Hebrew novel, Yonatan had once found a biblical-sounding love poem on a yellowing sheet of paper, apparently composed by this same Benyamin Trotsky. The lover in the poem though was called Eleazar of Maresha and his beloved Azuva daughter of Shilhi. It was entitled "But Their Hearts Were Not True." At the bottom of the page a few words were penciled in a round, untroubled handwriting. But Yonatan could not decipher those words because the letters were Cyrillic.
Never in all the years had his parents so much as mentioned the B. T. affair in his presence. Except once, during a fierce quarrel, Yolek had said to Hava in Polish, "Twój komediant," and she had hissed at him:
"Ty zboju. Ty morderco." ("You crook. You murderer.")
The whole thing was incredible, the old-timers on the kibbutz sometimes recalled. From a range of just two or three feet, that joker, he managed to miss a bull!
Yonatan was trying to imagine some different place, a place suitable for him, some way of working and resting just as he pleased, away from ever being encircled again.
His plan was to go far away, as far as he could get, to a place as different as it could be from the kibbutz, from the youth camps, from desert bivouacs, from the long lines of hitchhiking soldiers at road junctions blasted by hot dry winds and the stench of thistles, sweat, dust, and dried urine. Perhaps a strange, truly big city, with a river, with bridges, and towers, and tunnels, and fountains with monstrous gargoyles spouting water — fountains nightly fingered by a rare, electric light, where a lonely woman might be standing, her face turned to the light of the water and her back to a square paved with cobblestones. A faraway place where anything is possible — love, danger, arcane encounters, sudden conquests.
He fancied himself stalking with the light tread of a young jungle-cat the carpeted corridors of a cold, tall building, pushing past doormen into elevators whose ceilings glowed with round eyes, carried along in a stream of strangers, all intent on their own affairs, each utterly alone, his own face as inscrutable as theirs.
And so he had the idea of going overseas to study while working at some odd job, as a night watchman, say, or an attendant, or even a courier such as he had seen advertised for in a brief notice in the Help Wanted column of the newspaper. Not that he had the vaguest notion of what a courier might do, but something told him nonetheless, that's for you, friend. He imagined himself at the controls of the latest machines, before instrument panels and blinking lights, surrounded by determined men and cunning women. By himself at last, in a rented room high up in a skyscraper in some foreign city — no doubt in America; no doubt in the Middle West of the movies, where he would spend his nights preparing for entrance exams, acquiring a profession that would set him out on the high road to life itself. And then on to the place where he was waited for, and would not be waited for forever.
At the end of that autumn Yonatan got up the courage to hint of his plans to his father.
Though it was Yolek, in his capacity as secretary of the kibbutz, who initiated the conversation. Early one evening he cornered his son at the foot of the stone stairs leading up to the recreation hall and urged him to take over the management of the tractor shed.
Yolek spoke in a low, secretive voice. A moist breeze blew over them. The evening light was clouded, the light between one rain and the next. A sodden bench was covered with wet walnut leaves. Wet walnut leaves had already buried a broken sprinkler and a pile of burlap sacks. Yolek was a broadly built man. From the shoulders down he was drawn in rough, straight lines, like a heavy packing crate, but his gray unhealthy face, with its scattered pouches of wasted skin, looked more like an aging philanderer's than a principled old socialist's. Whereas Yonatan was tall, thin, and slightly distracted-looking. He stubbornly kept his eyes on the bench, the buried sacks, and the broken sprinkler. Suddenly, in a low, rapid voice, he burst into a torrent of speech.
No! Absolutely not! He didn't even want to hear about it. Running the tractor shed was not for him. He had work in the citrus groves and there was still the grapefruit to get in. "When it stops raining, I mean. Today, of course, we couldn't pick, but as soon as it clears we'll start again. And besides, the tractor shed — what do I have to do with tractors?" "That's something totally new," said Yolek. "Nowadays no one wants to work in the tractor shed. Mazel tov. Some years ago we had fierce battles around here because everybody wanted to be nothing less than a mechanic, and now suddenly working with nuts and bolts is beneath all of you. Scyths! Huns! Tatars! I don't mean you personally. I'm talking in general. Look at your young Labor Party hacks. Look at your young littérateurs. Never mind. All I ask is that you take over the shed for as long as it takes to find a permanent solution. And if I ask such a favor from you, I expect you to give me better reasons for refusing than just sobs."
"Look," said Yonatan, "look, I simply don't feel I'm right for it."
"Not right for it!" said Yolek. "You do feel, you don't feel, you're right, you're not right — what is this here, a drama ensemble? Are we a bunch of actors trying to decide who's going to play Boris Godunov here? Tell me, once and for all, will you, what this is all about with you people — the right person, the wrong person, all this spoiled, capricious nonsense of self-fulfillment, or whatever the hell you call it. What's being the right or wrong person got to do with work, eh?"
"Look, I'm just saying that it's not for me," said Yonatan. "What good does it do to get angry? I'm not made for that kind of work, and that's it. Besides, I'm having second thoughts about my future altogether. And here you are, arguing about young Labor Party politicians while we're both getting soaked. See, it's raining again."
Which wasn't what Yolek heard him say. Or perhaps he heard correctly and preferred to back off. At any rate, he replied: "Right then. Sleep on it and give me a yes or no. No point standing here arguing all night with the rain pouring down on our heads. And speaking of heads, you ought to get a haircut."
One Saturday, when Yonatan's younger brother Amos was home on a short leave from the army, Yonatan snapped at him:
"Why talk so much about next year? You have no way of knowing where you'll be a year from now. And neither do I."
To his wife Rimona he said: "Do you think I need a haircut?"
Rimona took a long look at him. With a diffident, delayed-action smile as though she had been asked a delicate or even dangerous question, she replied: "You look nice with long hair, but if it bothers you, that's different."
"Nonsense," said Yonatan.
It saddened him to have to part with the smells, sounds, and colors he had known since childhood. He loved the fragrance of evening as it slowly descended in the last days of summer over the newly mowed lawn — across which, by the oleander bushes, three mutts would be fighting furiously for the remains of a torn shoe. Some old pioneer in a peaked worker's cap would be standing on the path, reading a newspaper, his lips moving as if in prayer. An elderly woman carrying a blue bucket with vegetables, eggs, and a fresh loaf of bread would pass the old man by without so much as a nod because of some ancient feud. "Yonatan," she would say softly, "look at the daisies at the edge of the lawn. They're so white and clean, just like the snow that fell every winter back in Lupatyn." And the sound of a recorder from the children's house would mingle with the cries of birds, while in the distance to the west, beyond the citrus trees, beyond the setting sun, the engine of a passing freight train would bleat twice.
Yonatan felt sorry for his parents. For the Sabbath eves and the holidays when the men, women, and children, nearly all dressed in their very best, freshly ironed white shirts and blouses, assembled in the recreation hall to sing the old songs. For the tin shed in the citrus groves where he sometimes stole twenty minutes from work to browse in the sports pages. For Rimona. For the sun coming up like a bloodbath at five on a summer morning, behind the rocky hills to the east above the ruins of the abandoned Arab village of Sheikh Dahr. For the Saturday hikes among those hills and ruins — he and Rimona, Rimona and he with Udi and Anat, or sometimes just he alone.
In bed at night, unable to sleep, Yonatan thought that whatever was waiting for him must be wondering where he was and would, if he didn't hurry, move on without him. In the morning, he padded out to the porch barefoot and in his underwear, to put on his work clothes and mud-caked boots, one of which had yawned open a few days before, its laughing mouth full of rusty nails. Over the frozen screams of the birds he heard himself being paged to pick up and go, not to the grapefruit grove, but to some wholly different place, a place that would be the right place because it would be his own. He had better not be late.
Day by day he could feel something fading in him. Was it illness? Sleeplessness? Sometimes, of their own accord, his lips would murmur: Enough. That's it. Finished.
All the beliefs and ideas that they had instilled in him since childhood had shriveled. Rather, they had simply paled away in his heart. If they discussed at a general kibbutz meeting repeated violations of the egalitarian ethic, or the need for collective authority, or even for plain honesty, Yonatan, sitting by himself at the farthest table in the dining room, behind the southernmost column, would sketch naval destroyers on the paper napkins. If the discussion turned into a particularly long one, he would proceed to aircraft carriers, ships he had never seen except in the movies and illustrated magazines. Whenever he read in the paper of the growing threat of war, he would say to Rimona, nonsense, that's all these idiots ever do, and turn to the sports section.
Shortly before the high holidays he resigned from the Youth Committee. Ideas and opinions seemed to fade away. A sadness rose and fell like the wail of a siren, though even when it fell, as it sometimes did at work or during a chess game, he could feel it pierce him like a foreign body in his heart, in his throat, in his chest, in his gut, just as when he was small and did something bad and wasn't caught or punished but still he shook with fear all day long and at night in bed in the dark staying up till all hours — you crazy fool, you, what have you done?
Yonatan longed to get far away from this grief like those rich people in books, in Europe, who fled to snow-covered mountains to escape the summer heat or to the warm south to cheat the winter. Once, when the two of them were unloading sacks of fertilizer from a truck, he said to his friend Udi:
"Hey, Udi, what's the biggest fraud in the world?"
"Those meatballs Fayga cooks for lunch three times a week. Nothing but stale bread with a little meat seasoning."
"No," Yonatan persisted. "I mean really. The most colossal fraud there ever was."
"All right," said Udi unenthusiastically. "I guess it's religion. Or communism. Or both."
"No," said Yonatan. "It's the stories we were told when we were children."
"Stories?" marveled Udi. "What in the world made you think of that?"
"They were the exact opposite of life, that's what they were — got any matches, Udi? Remember that time, that commando raid on the Syrians in Nukeib, how we left a dead Syrian soldier with half his body shot away in a jeep and put his hands on the wheel and stuck a lit cigarette in his mouth and took off? You remember that?"
Udi took his time answering. He dragged a sack off the truck, carefully squared it off to form the base for a new pile. Then, exhaling, scratching himself, he turned around to look at Yonatan, who was leaning against the side of the truck, smoking. Udi laughed.
"What are you doing? Philosophizing on me in broad daylight?"
"Nonsense," said Yonatan. "I was thinking of a dirty little book I once read in English about what the seven dwarfs really did to Snow White while she was sleeping off the poisoned apple. It was all a fraud, Udi. That, and Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood, and The Emperor's New Clothes, and all those sweet stories where everybody lived happily ever after. It was all a fraud."
"Talking about fraud, take my matches out of your pocket and give them back. Come on, let's unload the rest of this fertilizer before Etan R. comes along. Only thirty more to go. Take a deep breath."
Yonatan took a deep breath and calmed down.
It was almost a surprise how easy the decision was. The obstacles turned out to be minor. Shaving in front of the mirror, he would whisper:
"He just picked up and left."
Excerpted from "A Perfect Peace"
Copyright © 1982 Amos Oz and Am Oved.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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About the Author,