Thursday 5 April 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Six

It's time to leave Europe once more on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize travels as our next stop is Israel.  The weather will be fairly nice for our visit, and we'll be enjoying a short stay in a small village and getting to know some new friends.  Sometimes it's nice to just slow down and relax :)

What's it all about?
Amos Oz's Scenes from Village Life, translated by Nicholas de Lange, is a series of elegantly written sketches about the lives of people in an Israeli village outside Tel Aviv.  Each of the first seven tales features one of the inhabitants of the village of Tel Ilan, but most of the characters appear elsewhere, popping up in supporting roles in someone else's story.  These seven stories, taken as a whole, give us an overview of what life in the village (against the backdrop of certain political and military issues) is like.  However, the eighth tale, an extremely different story to the others, makes the reader look at matters in a new light...

In one way, the village appears to be an idyllic, pleasurable place to live.  People amble around its streets, walking through the memorial garden, waving to neighbours as they pass.  However, beneath the peaceful surface, things are not quite right.  Each of the protagonists has secrets they are keeping from the outside world, feelings they are trying to deny themselves.  Without revealing anything over-dramatic, Oz nonetheless depicts a place full of sad, haunted people.  Whether it's the mayor, wandering the streets looking for his wife, certain he won't find her, the doctor hoping her beloved nephew will arrive for a visit, or the lovelorn teenager trying to make a connection with the local librarian, each of the characters seems incredibly lonely.

Part of the beauty of the book is the care the writer takes in creating these characters.  The reader can see the villagers as they pass by thanks to the individual traits Oz sketches out.  Benny Avni, the mayor of Tel Ilan, leaning into the wind as he roams the streets; the 85-year-old former politician Pesach Kedem, his head bent almost at right-angles.  It also helps that the translation is excellent, virtually flawless, simply a joy to read.

If the characters are well drawn though, then the village is even more so.  Just as the various characters stroll in and out of view, so too do the local landmarks.  The memorial garden near the town hall, the centre of Tel Ilan, appears in most of the stories, its park bench playing a significant role in a couple of them.  This is also true of the water tower, a structure about which we learn more as the book progresses, becoming less abstract and more detailed with each mention.  It's tempting to surmise that only from the top of the tower, the highest point in Tel Ilan, can we get a real overview of what is happening in the book...

The information we are given about the town may even explain the malaise affecting the people.  Tel Ilan, an easy drive from Tel Aviv, is slowly becoming a trendy getaway for city folk, a place to shop for local artwork and mingle at the weekly markets.  For the locals though, this means a shift from the isolated village life, and the slow death of the old farming traditions.  While most people benefit from the changes financially, it seems that the villagers are struggling to adapt mentally to the new reality.  They have more money, but is it at the expense of something more important?

Of course, this is Israel, so there are other, unavoidable, matters at play.  Oz doesn't stress the realities of the conflict in the Middle East, but the issue is constantly in the background.  In a few of the stories, shots ring out in the night, unexplained and largely ignored; the water tower, with a bunker at the base, turns out to be marred by bullet holes; in the penultimate story, Singing, the only one to even remotely address the political issues, planes scream over the village, disturbing the evening entertainment unrolling below.

And the final story of the collection, In a faraway place at another time, simply adds to this feeling of uncertainty.  We have no real indicator as to whether it takes place in the future or the past - all we know is that it depicts a society of greedy, selfish, degraded people, and it's not pleasant.  What does it mean?  No idea.  It's a very depressing note to end the collection on though...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Definitely.  I loved this book; I probably enjoyed it more than any other I've read so far, and it's one I'd like to read again (and possibly have in my personal library).  The interconnected tales and the understated sadness pervading them hit a chord with me, and Nicholas de Lange's wonderful translation doesn't do it any harm either.  Brilliant :)

Will it make the shortlist?
I'll say yes for this one.  Most of the other reviews I've seen have been extremely positive, and Oz is a very well-known writer, one who will already have many backers.  It's a little different from many of the other contenders, and I think that is a positive.  Also, if the panel are looking for a non-European book for the shortlist, I'm pretty sure that this is it...

Another one down, many more to come.  That's all for today, but don't despair - I'll be back with another slice of IFFP longlist delight very soon ;)