Columns

SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Wizard called Oz
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Talking with Amos Oz makes stories, history, fiction … and reading come alive.

R amat Aviv is a leafy suburb of Tel Aviv, the understated terrain of the intellectuals, lawyers and professors, politicians and journalists. On the top floor of one of the buildings that face a park in the heart of this sylvan silent suburb is the apartment where Amos Oz lives, mostly on weekends. He spends most of his days in Arad, a small town at the edge of the desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. It's the desert that provides him the eternal silence that he yearns for every morning, the calm that he tries to distil into his writing. There is no name on the buzzer at the entrance. You have to know where he lives, or you have to guess it. Or you have to be expected.

Warm encounter
He is quietly endearing, boyish at seventy, as he opens the door and I stumble in, wrong-footed by the fact that there is no ice to be broken. We talk for a while of nations born of dreams, and the disappointments inherent in the nature of dreams. Then he vanishes to the kitchen to make coffee, leaving me alone in a sea of books.

From the floor to the ceiling, except where the window allows one to kiss the treetops, they lie in rigorous order. Roth, Jhabvala, Chatwin, Ben Okri…. and translations of Oz in several languages. I am reminded of the scene in his autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness where the child Amos is given a section of his father's bookshelf to put his books and the pains that go into arranging and rearranging those few titles. And of Oz's childhood ambition, fuelled by post-Holocaust fear, to become a book. People, even writers, got killed. But there was always a chance that a copy of book would survive in some forlorn corner of the world, “in Reykjavik, Valladolid or Vancouver.”

The author of such masterpieces as The Black Box, the man on everybody's shortlist for the Nobel Prize this year, is soon back with the coffee, in red cups without plates, wiping stray drops with his handkerchief. He talks easily, in smooth formulations, as if too many interviewers have gone down the same path.

“All literature is provincial. It has to have a specific location. International fiction is only to be bought at international airports and left on benches.” Naturally we turn to Faulkner who urged writers to return to the “old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Oz agrees and adds: “When I visited Oxford, Mississippi the place was only a poor, fading replica of the fictitious place that appears in Faulkner's novels.”

Miracle
Glancing at his books in my hands, he comments: “It's always a living miracle when I meet a reader. A reader is a co-producer of a book. I write the musical score, he plays it. If the reader reads about a sunset, he brings to it all the sunsets he has ever seen. That is why no two readers ever read the same book. You can admire paintings or listen to music and be talking to a friend, but when you read, you read alone. You are part of the process.”

His words bring forth the images of his mother, described in A Tale….her knees folded under her, bent over a book of Turgenev, Chekhov or Maupassant, reading after a morning of household chores in the damp basement flat, “surrounded by zinc tubs and pickled gherkins and the geranium that was dying in a rusty olive drum.” Ultimately, the reading was not escape enough from the tawdriness of provincial, war-torn Jerusalem and she killed herself in 1952, leaving anger and hurt in young Amos. “Is that the way to leave, rudely, in the middle of a sentence?” Almost unconsciously, a recurring image creeps into many books, of a woman “who used to spend hours standing at the window, with a glass of tea getting cold in her hand, with her face to the pomegranate bush and her back to the room.”

His words draw me back to the book-filled room: “You write because you want to tell stories. It's like dreaming or falling in love. You want to tell stories, hear stories since the age of two or three. Stories have been told around Neanderthal fires, stories predate the alphabet.”

After his mother's death, Oz went to live in a kibbutz, in the manner of the bronzed and broad-shouldered pioneers, the revolutionary worker poets, whom he had long idealized. There he alternated between working in the fields and scribbling stories. “ My Michael was written in the bathroom when I was 24. I then thought I knew all about women and could write like a woman. I would not dare to do it today. I wanted a free day to write. The kibbutz elders debated it and one of them, an ‘old man of 40' even said that I may be great writer, perhaps the next Tolstoi, but I needed to work in the fields till I was 50 to learn about life. I got my one day finally, and after my first book of stories and a novel were published, I got two and then four days a week.” All his early royalties went to the kibbutz and it was not till he was 46 that he actually moved out and opened a bank account. There is a little graveyard near the kibbutz which he is fond of pointing out. “Most of my characters lie buried there, or bits of many characters.” People whom he knew, who lived, breathed, loved and cheated. For nothing is pure fiction.

Evenly and unhurriedly he talks some more about writing. “It took me five years to write The Same Sea. I wanted to remove the boundaries between prose and poetry, between fiction and faction, between music and writing. I wanted to make the pages dance and sing, even leaving sentences half finished on the page.” I pick up the marvellous product of that effort and request him to sign it for me. And then its time to go. As I leave he modestly informs me: “Two of my books have been translated into Malayalam.”

navtej.sarna@gmail.com