Friday, 10 February 2017

Book Review: Black Box by Amos Oz
How often does it happen that the love that united a man and a woman turns into hatred as time advances and they drift apart. Some couples still manage to part in a civilised manner if not in peace, but often the end of a relationship is a violent and spiteful mess that leaves everybody concerned hurt, angry and bitter. Even worse if a child is involved who is too young to understand the reasons for the fighting as is the case in Black Box by Amos Oz, an epistolary novel about a couple whose marriage ended in a vicious divorce and left not only themselves but also their son filled with hatred and resentment for years on end. Only when the woman in her despair about the son who has grown into an uncontrollable teenager writes a letter to her ex-husband to ask for help, they finally get a chance to sort things out and make peace.

Amos Oz (עמוס עוז) was born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine (today: Israel), in May 1939. Three years after his mother’s suicide, in 1954, he left home to live in a kibbutz near Tel Aviv and he changed his surname to Oz meaning “courage” in Hebrew. There he started writing for the kibbutz newsletter and the newspaper Davar. After his compulsory military service he studied Philosophy and Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and subsequently worked as a teacher, while continuing to write. He published his first collection of short stories titled Where the Jackals Howl (ארצות התן) in 1965 and his first novel Elsewhere, Perhaps (מקום אחר) in 1966. Since then the prolific author produced numerous novels, essays, collections of short stories and non-fiction articles, and children’s books. His most notable works of adult fiction are My Michael (מיכאל שלי: 1968), The Hill of Evil Counsel (הר העצה הרעה: שלושה סיפורים: 1976), A Perfect Peace (מנוחה נכונה: 1982), Black Box (קופסה שחורה: 1986), To Know a Woman (לדעת אישה: 1989), Rhyming Life and Death (חרוזי החיים והמוות: 2007), Scenes from Village Life (תמונות מחיי הכפר: 2009), and Judas (הבשורה על פי יהודה: 2014). Amos Oz died in Tel Aviv, Israel, in December 2018.

In February 1976, the renowned Israeli expert on fanaticism Alexander “Alec” A. Gideon, who is a professor at Chicago’s Midwest University and travelling a lot, is forwarded a letter from his ex-wife Ilana in Jerusalem where she lives with her new husband and their three-year-old daughter. Writing to him, she breaks the complete silence following their vicious divorce over seven years earlier and opens what Alec calls in a later letter likens to the Black Box of a crashed airplane. She has a good reason to get in touch: she is at her wit’s end regarding their rebellious son Boaz.
“… like a genetic time bomb, Boaz is now sixteen, six foot three and still growing, a bitter, wild boy whose hatred and loneliness have invested him with astonishing physical strength. And this morning the thing that I have been expecting for a long time finally happened: an urgent telephone call. They have decided to throw him out of the boarding school, because he assaulted one of the women teachers. …”
At the time of the divorce, Alec denied paternity of the boy because during their marriage Ilana had countless affairs and admitted them in court, but they both know that this was only later when they had already become estranged and that he actually is the boy’s father. So although he is annoyed at hearing from Ilana, he answers her letter offering assistance through his lawyer and money because she cunningly hinted at being hard up financially. This is the beginning of a correspondence between Alec and Ilana that helps them to come to terms with their past, notably the nasty end of their marriage that left them full of hatred and bitterness towards each other.
“I ask myself why I did not follow your good advice, why I didn’t throw your first letter, like a live scorpion, straight into the fire, as soon as I read the opening sentence? … It’s all over, Ilana. Checkmate. As after a plane crash, we have sat down and analyzed, by correspondence, the contents of the black box. And from now on, in the words of our decree, we have no further demands on each other.”
Before long also Ilana’s Sephardic new husband holding high religion and dreaming of the redemption of the West Bank, her sister living in a kibbutz, and others involved in getting Boaz out of trouble and in helping him to find his way in life as well as Boaz himself begin to exchange letters with Alec, with Ilana and among each other to make their point. And in August, just when it seems as if everything were working out fine and everybody were at peace with each other, it turns out that Alec is terminally ill with cancer and he comes to see Boaz…

In the epistolary novel Black Box the author combined a series of letters plus enclosed reports, several telegrams and some of Alec’s research notes to a convincing medley of varied and exceptionally authentic narrative voices in first-person singular. The central plot is the more or less ordinary story of a marriage that ended in disaster and its delayed aftermaths surrounding the couple’s unmanageable adolescent son. The characters who fill the scene are definitely more interesting because they are extreme as well as contrary types and the driving force of the novel. In addition, they mirror the whole variety of people living in modern-day Israel and having problems to find a common basis because of their conflicting temperaments and different biographical, political and religious backgrounds. Most characters show great psychological depth so they feel true to life despite their odd edges that give room for subtle and overt irony, but Ilana is a bit of an exception there. Her personality appeared somehow incomplete, even incongruous to me though no less real for it. Language and style of each letter perfectly correspond with the character of the respective letter writer and the changes that they undergo as time passes. In English translation the novel was a mere pleasure to read.

Black Box by Amos Oz was the first novel by this important Israeli writer that I read and I enjoyed it thoroughly, not least because its characters reflect recent past, present and future of Israel and of her people in more than just one way. I also liked his way of telling the story, notably the ironic and critical overtones that pleasantly distinguish it from shallow mainstream. I’m not surprised that Amos Oz is rumoured to have been a runner-up for the Nobel Prize in Literature already several times. Of course, I can’t say anything about the author’s other books, but Black Box was a worthwhile read that I gladly recommend to everybody who doesn’t know it yet.

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. I look forward to reading this one. I have only read his memoir about growing up in Israel, A Tale of Love and Darkness and it is excellent. Here is my review:

    1. Yes, his memoir seems to be one of the books that is best known abroad although he wrote so many novels. I haven't read it yet - I preferred to start with fiction. Besides, I needed an epistolary novel for the Month of Letters ;-)


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