The New York Times Book Review
Scenes from Village Lifeby Amos Oz
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“Scenes from Village Life is like a symphony, its movements more impressive together than in isolation. There is, in each story, a particular chord or strain; but taken together, these chords rise and reverberate, evoking an unease so strong it’s almost a taste in the mouth . . . Scenes from Village Life is a brief collection, but its brevity is a testament to its force. You will not soon forget it.”—New York Times Book Review
Strange things are happening in Tel Ilan, a century-old pioneer village. A disgruntled retired politician complains to his daughter that he hears the sound of digging at night. Could it be their tenant, that young Arab? But then the young Arab hears the digging sounds too. And where has the mayor’s wife gone, vanished without a trace, her note saying “Don’t worry about me”?
Around the village, the veneer of new wealth—gourmet restaurants, art galleries, a winery—barely conceals the scars of war and of past generations: disused air-raid shelters, rusting farm tools, and trucks left wherever they stopped. Scenes From Village Life is a memorable novel in stories by the inimitable Amos Oz: a brilliant, unsettling glimpse of what goes on beneath the surface of everyday life.
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
“Finely wrought . . . Oz writes characterizations that are subtle but surgically precise, rendering this work a powerfully understated treatment of an uneasy Israeli conscience." —Publishers Weekly, starred
“Informed by everything, weighed down by nothing, this is an exquisite work of art.”—The Scotsman
The New York Times Book Review
"Finely wrought... Oz writes characterizations that are subtle but surgically precise, rendering this work a powerfully understated treatment of an uneasy Israeli conscience."
-Publishers Weekly, starred "Highly recommended."
-Library Journal, starred
UK Praise for SCENES FROM VILLAGE LIFE:
"An impressive and very affecting achievement...These stories, in their humanity, may do more for Israel than any of the decisions we have been led to expect of its leaders in the months to come."
"One of the most powerful books you will read about present-day Israel."
The village of Tel Ilan was founded by farmers at the start of the 20th century. A century later, the village is gentrifying as wealthy outsiders discover its charms. That's a problem, but the locals are wrestling with less obvious disturbances.In the longest story ("Digging"),an 86-year-old man, a former Knesset member and unpleasant misanthrope, is being cared for by his middle-aged daughter; their handyman, an Arab university student, also lives on the property. The old man complains of mysterious digging sounds under the house at night. Imaginings. But then the Arab hears them, and finally so does the daughter. Whether a metaphor for an unhappy house or something else, the puzzle fails to intrigue. Yossi Sasson, the realtor in "Lost,"is troubled by the feeling he must do something, but exactly what he doesn't know. If his unease is existential, how to explain his sighting of an Alpine hiker in the middle of town? The popular mayor, Benny Avni, is looking for his wife after receiving a cryptic message from her ("Waiting"). Like Yossi, he must make a decision; if only he knew about what. A third character troubled by an undefined mission is the unnamed narrator of "Singing."He's a guest at a communal singing event, a successful evocation of village life by Oz. The hosts are a couple whose only child committed suicide. That memory triggers the narrator's own "despair"; but despair over what?He's a mystery man. There are yet more unresolved mysteries in "Heirs"and "Relations." In the former, a man living with his ancient mother is visited by a predatory lawyer claiming kinship. But why does the bedridden old woman fondle this obnoxious intruder? In "Relations," a doctor is disturbed by the non-appearance of her beloved, absent-minded nephew.
All the dead ends make for an unsatisfying collection.
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Read an Excerpt
The stranger was not quite a stranger. Something in his appearance repelled and yet fascinated Arieh Zelnik from first glance, if it really was the first glance: he felt he remembered that face, the arms that came down nearly to the knees, but vaguely, as though from a lifetime ago.
The man parked his car right in front of the gate. It was a dusty, beige car, with a motley patchwork of stickers on the rear window and even on the side windows: a varied collection of declarations, warnings, slogans and exclamation marks. He locked the car, rattling each door vigorously to make sure they were all properly shut. Then he patted the hood lightly once or twice, as though the car were an old horse that you tethered to the gatepost and patted affectionately to let him know he wouldn’t have long to wait. Then the man pushed the gate open and strode toward the vine-shaded front veranda. He moved in a jerky, almost painful way, as if walking on hot sand.
From his swing seat in a corner of the veranda Arieh Zelnik could watch without being seen. He observed the uninvited guest from the moment he parked his car. But try as he might, he could not remember where or when he had come across him before. Was it on a foreign trip? In the army? At work? At university? Or even at school? The man’s face had a sly, jubilant expression, as if he had just pulled off a practical joke at someone else’s expense. Somewhere behind or beneath the stranger’s features there lurked the elusive suggestion of a familiar, disturbing face: was it someone who once harmed you, or someone to whom you yourself once did some forgotten wrong?
Like a dream of which nine-tenths had vanished and only the tail was still visible.
Arieh Zelnik decided not to get up to greet the newcomer but to wait for him here, on his swing seat on the front veranda.
As the stranger hurriedly bounced and wound his way along the path that led from the gate to the veranda steps, his little eyes darted this way and that as though he were afraid of being discovered too soon, or of being attacked by some ferocious dog that might suddenly leap out at him from the spiny bougainvillea bushes growing on either side of the path.
The thinning flaxen hair, the turkey-wattle neck, the watery, inquisitively darting eyes, the dangling chimpanzee arms, all evoked a certain vague unease.
From his concealed vantage point in the shade of a creeping vine, Arieh Zelnik noted that the man was large-framed but slightly flabby, as if he had just recovered from a serious illness, suggesting that he had been heavily built until quite recently, when he had begun to collapse inward and shrink inside his skin. Even his grubby beige summer jacket with its bulging pockets seemed too big for him, and hung loosely from his shoulders.
Though it was late summer and the path was dry, the stranger paused to wipe his feet carefully on the mat at the bottom of the steps, then inspected the sole of each shoe in turn. Only once he was satisfied did he go up the steps and try the mesh screen door at the top. After tapping on it politely several times without receiving any response he finally looked around and saw the householder planted calmly on his swing seat, surrounded by large flowerpots and ferns in planters, in a corner of the veranda, in the shade of the arbor.
The visitor smiled broadly and seemed about to bow; he cleared his throat and declared:
“You’ve got a beautiful place here, Mr. Zelkin! Stunning! It’s a little bit of Provence in the State of Israel! Better than Provence—Tuscany! And the view! The woods! The vines! Tel Ilan is simply the loveliest village in this entire Levantine state. Very pretty! Good morning, Mr. Zelkin. I hope I’m not disturbing you, by any chance?”
Arieh Zelnik returned the greeting drily, pointed out that his name was Zelnik, not Zelkin, and said that he was unfortunately not in the habit of buying anything from door-to-door salesmen.
“Quite right, too!” exclaimed the other, wiping his forehead with his sleeve. “How can we tell if someone is a bona fide salesman or a con man? Or, heaven forbid, a criminal who is casing the joint for some gang of burglars? But as it happens, Mr. Zelnik, I am not a salesman. I am Maftsir!”
“Maftsir. Wolff Maftsir. From the law firm Lotem and Pruzhinin. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Zelnik. I have come, sir, on a matter, how should we put it, or perhaps instead of trying to describe it, we should come straight to the point. Do you mind if I sit down? It’s a rather personal affair. Not my own personal affair, heaven forbid—if it were, I would never dream of bursting in on you like this without prior notice. Although, in fact, we did try, we certainly did, we tried several times, but your telephone number is unlisted and our letters went unanswered. Which is why we decided to try our luck with an unannounced visit, and we are very sorry for the intrusion. This is definitely not our usual practice, to intrude on the privacy of others, especially when they happen to reside in the most beautiful spot in the whole country. One way or another, as we have already remarked, this is on no account just our own personal business. No, no. By no means. In fact, quite the opposite: it concerns, how can we put it tactfully, it concerns your own personal affairs, sir. Your own personal affairs, not just ours. To be more precise, it relates to your family. Or perhaps rather to your family in a general sense, and more specifically to one particular member of your family. Would you object to us sitting and chatting for a few minutes? I promise you I’ll do my best to ensure that the whole matter does not take up more than ten minutes of your time. Although, in fact, it’s entirely up to you, Mr. Zelkin.”
“Zelnik,” Arieh said.
And then he said, “Sit down.”
“Not here, over there,” he added.
Because the fat man, or the formerly fat man, had first settled himself on the double swing seat, right next to his host, thigh to thigh. A cloud of thick smells clung to his body, smells of digestion, socks, talcum powder and armpits. A faint odor of pungent after-shave overlay the blend. Arieh Zelnik was suddenly reminded of his father, who had also covered his body odor with the pungent aroma of after-shave.
As soon as he was told to move, the visitor rose, swaying slightly, his simian arms holding his knees, apologized and deposited his posterior, garbed in trousers that were too big for him, at the indicated spot, on a wooden bench across the garden table. It was a rustic bench, made of roughly planed planks rather like railway ties. It was important to Arieh that his sick mother should not catch sight of this visitor, not even of his back, not even of his silhouette outlined against the arbor, which was why he had seated him in a place that was not visible from the window. As for his unctuous, cantorial voice, her deafness would protect her from that.
Meet the Author
AMOS OZ was born in Jerusalem in 1939. He is the author of fourteen novels and collections of short fiction, and numerous works of nonfiction. His acclaimed memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness was an international bestseller and recipient of the prestigious Goethe Prize, as well as the National Jewish Book Award. Scenes from Village Life, a New York Times Notable Book, was awarded the Prix Méditerranée Étranger in 2010. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.
NICHOLAS DE LANGE is a professor at the University of Cambridge and a renowned translator. He has translated Amos Oz’s work since the 1960s.
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