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Amos Oz Talks to Edgar Reichmann

By Reichmann, Edgar | UNESCO Courier, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Amos Oz Talks to Edgar Reichmann

Reichmann, Edgar, UNESCO Courier

Amos Oz, who was born in Jerusalem in 1939, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most gifted Israeli writers working today. His novels and collections of short fiction, which have been translated into many languages, include Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966), My Michael (1968), Touch the Water, Touch the Wind (1973) and The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976). His In the Land of Israel (1983) is a book of reportage based on interviews with Israelis from different backgrounds. A committed writer, Amos Oz has always worked for a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians. His latest novel, Fima, has just been published by Chatto & Windus, London.

* You write in Hebrew, which is not a widely read language. How do you explain the fact that your work has an international readership?

--My books have been translated into twenty-six languages, including Japanese and Catalan. I speak only Hebrew, which is my mother tongue, and English. I've always wondered what a reader on another continent, steeped in a culture so different from my own, might feel on reading my books. I think reading a book in translation is like making love to someone through a window or playing a violin sonata on the piano. However good the translation, something is always lost. Granted, everything hinges on the translator's generosity and intelligence. A translator should not slavishly follow the syntax of the original text but focus on the meaning and the melody of words and transpose as well as possible their music and scansion.

My parents, who were born in Russia, spoke Russian and Polish to each other, read German, English and French, which opened the doors of Western culture to them, and probably dreamed in Yiddish, since they were Jewish. But when between the wars they came and settled in what was then the British mandate of Palestine, they adopted Hebrew and decided to speak to me only in Hebrew, if only to prevent me, someone who was so drawn to the "elsewhere" that had brought them so much disappointment, from being tempted to leave the country.

My father studied comparative literature. It's because of him that I started to read the great writers, the ones who ask the fundamental questions that are asked by men and women all over the world.

The concept of universalism may seem vague and sometimes irrelevant. One might well ask how an Australian or an Argentine reader can have the same centres of interest as an Egyptian or Pakistani reader, for example. How can one find the secret way from the particular to the universal? Great Russian writers like Dostoyevsky or Chekhov, Israeli ones like Agnon or Brenner, and central European writers such as Musil and Mann have managed to transcend historical and cultural differences and religious and political commitments.

* Your works are peopled by nostalgic, uprooted characters at grips with painful inner conflicts and in search of an "elsewhere" that is hard, if not impossible, to find. Are these personal dramas metaphorical expressions of those rocking your country?

--Authors from the world's trouble spots are often suspected of using metaphor to express their political commitments. To me, political reality is a metaphor for personal or family conflicts. The issue that preoccupies me most is the durability of the family, the most fantastic, the most mysterious and the oldest of our social institutions. Man and woman have not always been monogamous, far from it! Their love never lasts forever, whether it is carnal, based on pure affection or has the form of a loving friendship. And yet the family has survived throughout history, indestructible in spite of many social upheavals. Why? I have tried to answer this question in all my novels.

As far as the links between novels and politics are concerned, I am amazed by the importance some European readers have attached in the last half-century to "deciphering" all forms of literature in terms of current events.

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Amos Oz Talks to Edgar Reichmann


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