Amos Oz, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, Israel, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 158 pages; 1992. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author.

It’s not often a book goes over my head, but I’m afraid this 1973 novella by Amos Oz was a bit lost on me.

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind was the author’s fourth work of fiction.

The story arc traces what happens to a married couple after they are separated in 1939 during the Second World War and then reunited on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967.

When the Nazis advance into Poland, Elisha Pomeranz, a Jewish watchmaker and mathematician, evades capture by hiding in the woods not far from his home, reinventing himself as a magician and woodcutter. His wife, Stepha, stays behind, using her beauty and intelligence to survive.

When the war ends, Stepha moves to Moscow and becomes a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Elisha makes his way to the Jewish homeland, via Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece.

A master of reinvention

The story is mainly focused on Elisha’s experience, for when he arrives in Palestine he sets up a watchmaker’s shop and settles into a fairly routine, mundane life but one in which he is happy.

Later, after a sordid affair with an American woman who turns up on his doorstep, he worries that he is being watched by forces unknown. To become invisible, he reinvents himself as a shepherd tending a small flock on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country, where he tutors science to local schoolchildren to get by.

Later, he writes an important research paper that is published in a scientific periodical, attracting the attention of the world’s press and scientific community.

The article is by no means modest or insignificant : according to the headlines in the evening newspaper he has succeeded in solving one of the most baffling paradoxes connected with the mathematical concept of infinity.

But while some doubt the authenticity of Elisha’s discovery, his fame offers a form of protection.

Eventually, things come to a head on the kibbutz for even those in a position of power, while cognizant of the fact that they have a “mathematical genius” living amongst them, doubt his commitment to the cause.

A collage of prose styles

There’s a lot in this short novella that went over my head, perhaps because I just don’t know enough about the different aspects to Jewish life and history, but more likely because it’s written in an unusual style that I found hard to like.

The first third in particular reads like a Gothic fairytale with elements of magic realism thrown in for good measure making for pretty heavy going. There are later sections that feel like reportage, while others are lyrical and dotted with beautiful descriptions of landscapes and scenery. This constant switching in style made it hard to get a handle on the story as a whole.

That said, I suspect this collage of prose styles is deliberate. Because if I got anything out of this difficult novella it is that Jewish people have survived for centuries by using all kinds of techniques, whether that be assimilating, going to ground or pretending to be something that they are not in order to get by. For instance, Elisha’s constant reinvention of himself, first to evade the horrors of the Holocaust and later to avoid those pursuing him for nefarious purposes, is mirrored by the author’s constant change in prose style and tempo.

The text is also heavy with religious and sexual metaphors that began to wear very thin.

Not having read anything by Amos Oz before, I’m not sure how this book fits into his oeuvre and whether it’s indicative of his work as a whole. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read his books and can perhaps suggest another novel that may be more suited to my tastes.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

17 thoughts on “‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)”

  1. That sounds like a very difficult book to read, and I know you are able to deal with all sorts of books, so it must have been a hard one to leave you so confused. Your idea of the changing style reflecting the changes people had to make to assimilate and get through life sounds plausible, but it still shouldn’t be unreadable.

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    1. Well, I wouldn’t describe it as unreadable. There were bits, especially his life as a shepherd and then when he becomes famous that were excellent, but overall I just wondered what I had missed. I think it’s making political / religious statements but I just don’t know enough to get them. I think Jewish readers would get more out of this book than poor old never-even-been-baptised and have no religious upbringing me. lol.

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    1. It was hard work. I almost abandoned it at page 30 but persisted in the hope it might get better. It did but still not enough to make me say I enjoyed the book. I gave it two stars on GoodReads.

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  2. Just so you know, Amos Oz is a bit of a literary snob, and appeals to mainly other literary snobs. He’s was a really lovely guy (his brother and I were colleagues many years ago, and we’re still friends), but even intellectuals will tell you that he was a bit of a hit or miss writer – his books were either adored or panned completely. This isn’t a very well known work of his, by the way. I’ve never had the courage to attempt to read any of his books (and his brother refuses to tell me which one I should try)! Good on you, and I think you hit on a very interesting reason why he chose to write it with so many different methods and mechanics. That makes a whole lot of sense, and jives with what I know about him and his work.

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    1. Ah, that’s interesting, I kind of knew that “snobs’ championed his work, but I hadn’t clocked he was a “hit or miss” writer and I didn’t know how this book had been received by his critics/fans. It hasn’t turned me off his work… and sometimes it’s good (for me) to read outside of my comfort zone.

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      1. His “My Michael” is probably the one most people read. But don’t get me wrong, he was a really lovely man, and he was super intelligent, and while the literary snobs loved him, I don’t think he wrote for them… but he didn’t make it easy for the average reader to just read and not think about what they were reading.

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