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 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, historical fiction, Israel, Linda Grant, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘When I Lived in Modern Times’ by Linda Grant


Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2000.

A young woman’s search for cultural identity at the end of the Second World War is the focus of Linda Grant’s award-winning When I Lived in Modern Times. The story is set largely in Palestine before partition and is told through the eyes of a 20-year-old Londoner in search of her Jewish roots.

A new life

Evelyn Sert is English by birth, but her parents are Jewish immigrants from Poland and Latvia. All through her childhood, she is conscious of the fact that she is “exotic” — “I was a round-faced, stubborn, dark-haired girl whose lips were too red and whose eyes were too black” — and struggles to fit in.

After a failed attempt to join art school, she works at her mother’s hairdressing salon in Soho until her mother’s untimely death in 1946. Then, itching to start a new life and keen to discover her Jewish roots, she moves to Palestine, where she finds it equally hard to fit in.

Living on a Kibbutz, where she washes floors, disinfects urinals and works long hours, doesn’t suit her — until she (belatedly) discovers boys and sex. But then she moves to Tel Aviv, a brash modern city, and reinvents herself entirely, with a new name, new apartment and new job — as a hairdresser in a salon with a largely British clientele.

Through her work, she falls in with a crowd of women married to British policemen. She feels comfortable in their company because I “could be an Englishwoman”.

I understood how to behave with them. If they offered you a sandwich, I knew that it was customary to refuse the first time and then accept only when pressed, while amongst the Jews of Palestine, if you said no, you went hungry. It was relaxing never to have to wonder as I did when I was amongst my own kind, ‘What is going on? Why do they do things this way? Why do I, who am one of these people, not know how to be a Jew in a Jewish land?’

But the longer she stays in Tel Aviv, the more she adjusts to the Jewish ways and customs, and begins to comprehend the Jewish struggle for The Promised Land. When she falls in love with a handsome Jewish boy, she gets caught up in events much bigger than herself — and the story suddenly develops an unexpected thriller-ish aspect that had me furiously turning the pages.

Story of displacement

Caught between her new life and her old one, Evelyn’s story is as much about her coming-of-age than anything else. But dig deeper, and her story also mirrors the struggle of a new Jewish state trying to find its feet.

But I had come to the place where there was, mercifully, no past and in
which it was the duty and destiny of everyone to make the future, each
for himself and for his country.

I found Evelyn’s sense of displacement — never feeling English enough, not quite understanding the Jews — the most powerful aspect of the novel. But Evelyn’s experience is not unique: at the time Palestine was one of those places — flooded with refugees and displaced persons from the Second World War — “where everyone came from somewhere else and everyone had a story to tell and these stories were not always inspiring or lovely”. (For an Australian take on this experience, I highly recommend Alan Collin’s trilogy, A Promised Land?)

Her constant questioning of herself (she has a rich inner world) is only blinded when she falls in love, so that the person she should have been questioning most gets a free ride, the consequences of which are nefarious — and deadly.

And while the novel touches on issues of anti-semitism, the politics of displacement, the Holocaust and the silent, often bloody, struggle for a Jewish homeland, it’s not all darkness and fear. The heat and dust and brilliant sunshine of Palestine is almost a character in its own right. And the middle-class, largely British, clientele in the hairdressing salon offers much light relief — some of their conversations are hilarious.

A powerful read

When I Lived in Modern Times is one of those novels that initially feels simple — in tone, style and storyline — but the further you progress, the more you realise the author is dealing with complicated, occasionally controversial, and weighty subjects.

The narrator’s engaging, if occasionally self-centred, voice is key to the novel’s success — it is only when Evelyn’s eyes are truly opened to the world around her, and the way in which she has been used, that the full emotional force of the narrative hits you. It’s a splendid, entertaining and powerful read.

Note: at 99p on Kindle, this book was an absolute bargain — but for some weird reason the entire text was in italics, not the easiest of fonts to read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Israel, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 257 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

It’s not very often that I get about 10 pages into a novel and decide I absolutely must buy everything else written by this same author. But that is what happened when I started reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack. I was so stunned and impressed by the novel’s opening I just knew that I had to explore her back catalogue as quickly as possible.

But Yasmina Khadra is not really a female author. She is, in fact, a man and former officer in the Algerian Army who used a pen name to avoid military censorship — or that’s the explanation given on the “about the author” page in this book. (You can find out more on the Wikipedia entry and on the author’s official [French language] website.)

Khadra has some 20 books to “her” name, but only four have been translated into English. The bestselling 2002 novel The Swallows of Kabul, shortlisted for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was the first. The Attack, also shortlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Award, was (as far as I can gather) the second. This book was also shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina and the Prix Renaudot, and won the Prix de Libraires. So, my initial impression, that The Attack was by an author of some standing was pretty much on the money.

The Attack is set in Israel and — surprise, surprise — it’s about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Amin has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated, highly professional doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in the most fashionable of circles, making him a shining example of integration.

But when police inform him that the suicide bomber is his much-adored wife, Amin’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart. His house is vandalised, he is shunned by his colleagues and suddenly his adopted homeland wants nothing more to do with him regardless of his previous social and professional standing.

And all the while Amin fails to believe that his wife is responsible for so much death and destruction, even when the police provide evidence to the contrary.

For much of the book we follow Amin’s search for truth. How can it be that the wife he loved so much had so much hate in her? What caused her to turn away from him and their seemingly perfect life together to carry out such an abominable act? What clues did she give him beforehand that he missed? Could he have stopped her?

During his investigation, helped in part by a female colleague whom he trusts, Amin put his own life in danger. At times the reader wants to reach into the story, grab him by the shoulders and tell him to get over it — he will never find anything that will make him comprehend the incomprehensible.

This is a searing heart-felt book, at times graphic and shocking, at other times incredibly moving. It is always believable.

My only quibble is that the first person narrative becomes wearing after awhile, but this may simply be a reflection of the rather wearing, or should I say heavy, subject matter.  This is a book that makes for uncomfortable reading, but despite this I found it difficult to put The Attack down. I raced through it in a matter of days and felt completely wrung out by the end of it.

Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.