Between Friends by Amos Oz

I was intrigued to read this collection of stories as they are set on a kibbutz in Israel, which interested me years ago, though I never quite made it to one.

The kibbutz is a communal style of living run along socialist lines. The stories don’t reveal a utopian haven however, rather one, as it is remarked, in which not everyone is friends and envy and malice aren’t far from the surface. Despite this the humanity of the protagonists is asserted and most of the characters achieve a poignancy to their lives and come across often in vivid colours, such is the narrative skill of author, Oz.

Many of the characters feature across a number of the tales and we come to know individuals like David Dagan, the history teacher who has a fairly doctrinaire approach to maintaining the principles on which the community was founded. But as they find, it’s difficult to achieve true equality in all things and their strivings are often undermined by the cynical wit of a character like Ronni Shindlin, the resident comedian, who nevertheless has his own domestic troubles with his child being bullied.

The stories detail what life is like at all stages – childhood, youth, middle-age and old age, both for men and women. Most of the characters are thoughtful and as is remarked in one of the stories, grapple with the big, simple truths of life such as desire, loneliness and death. My favourite story was the last one, ‘Esperanto’, which traces the last few months in the life of a shoemaker and philosopher who is especially idealistic in his hopes for the community and tries to teach Esperanto, that universal language in the hope of eliminating barriers, but finally succumbs to emphysema himself.

The concept of the collection reminded me a little of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance in tracing the lives of an idealistic community. Oz adheres to his own principles as outlined in his essay, ‘How to Cure a Fanatic’, where he recommended learning to see the world through the eyes of the other and using humour to combat fanatical ideas. Nevertheless, Oz demonstrates an especially imaginative sympathy for the fates of these individuals and humour is never at their expense. I’d recommend this collection for those seeking a highly realistic slice-of-life rather than anything purely escapist.

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