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.