The source for Scenes From Village Life, Amos Oz's new work of fiction, came to the world-famous writer in a dream.
"Some six or seven years ago, I dreamt that I was in an old Jewish village in Israel," Oz said in an interview last week before an appearance here at the Free Library on Logan Square. "You know, in Israel, there are between 15 and 20 such very old villages -- older than the state, over 100 years old. The village in my dream was completely empty, deserted -- no people, no animals, not even birds or crickets. And I was looking for someone.
"But in the middle of the dream," he explained, "as it happens in dreams, it became some people looking for me and me trying to hide. And when I woke up, I knew my next book was going to be set in one of those villages."
And so it is. Recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scenes From Village Life is comprised of eight interconnected short stories masquerading as a novel, all set in the small Israeli town of Tel Ilan. Though it is a century old, the town has seen something of a revival in recent years, with tony restaurants, art galleries and boutiques popping up throughout.
But when you look closer, you realize that Tel Ilan has a desolate quality. Its past is evident in the crumbling farm buildings and deserted tractors you see here and there. And strange things are happening to the people who reside there. The mayor's wife has left her husband a cryptic note and completely disappeared; an aunt expects a visit from her nephew, an injured soldier, but he never arrives; a crotchety old man, a pioneer and old-time socialist politician whose career never panned out, tells his daughter that he hears somebody digging under the house at night and he suspects it's their young Arab tenant.
"This book," said the author, "was born out of a sense of place, out of a fascination with a specific place, unlike my other books which usually begin with characters. Here, the village is present in every story and those stories would have been unthinkable in any other place."
According to Oz, this is a book "about love and loss, loneliness and longing, but it is also about death and desolation and desire and disillusionment. Even though there are new restaurants and boutiques and villas -- and, of course, new tenants -- the stories are mostly about the old-timers in the village.
"And all of them have lost something," he said. "They don't know exactly what they have lost and they don't know exactly where they lost it or why. But they're looking for it -- in attics and basements, under beds. This is very much a book about the state of half-remembering and half-knowing."
Sometimes, he added, as with the boy who goes to the library in one of the stories, "Strangers," it's about half-touching. "Half-remembering, half-knowing, half-touching -- these are very common human experiences."
Oz said that these stories, which appeared in book form three years ago in Israel, were read by some critics in Israel and elsewhere as fables of the Israeli condition, but he insists that they are more about the human condition in general.
"When I want to make a political statement," the far-from-bashful author said, "I pick up my other pen -- I have two on my desk -- and write an angry article and tell the government to go to hell."
Oz said that he takes a philosophical position toward those who wish to read political meanings into his fiction.
"A book coming from a troubled part of the world is destined to be read as an allegory," he said, "even if it's not meant to be an allegory and has nothing to do with current affairs. If it comes from Russia or Africa or the Middle East, people will look for some hidden messages."
Not that Oz has ever been shy about discussing the political conditions in Israel, nor was he during the Exponent interview.
"There are different sets of clocks ticking simultaneously -- some of them good, some of them bad," the author said about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. "The really good news today is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians have accepted that in the end there will be a two-state solution. Are they happy about it? They are not. But they know it.
"Ten or 20 or 30 years ago, most Palestinians thought that Israel was a passing infection," the author continued, "and if you scratched it hard enough it would go away. And most Israelis assumed that the Palestinian issue was an artificial issue. But now both of them know that the other is real and not going away. This is a major change. It's not something you'll see on CNN or in the newspapers because it's not an event. It's a process, not a headline."
If he were to use a metaphor, he would say that the patient is unhappily ready for surgery -- the patient being the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"The doctors, though, are cowards," he went on. "We don't have courageous leadership on both sides to carry out what those leaders know in their hearts they have to do -- this surgery, the two-state solution. How soon this will happen, I cannot say. It's difficult to be a prophet coming from the land of the prophets. And also, the nature of leadership is surprise."
But he did have a warning for those who have greeted the uprisings in Arab countries with unbounded optimism.
"People talk about the 'Arab Spring' as if it were Eastern Europe after communism fell," Oz said. "But different things are happening in different Arab countries. Egypt is not Libya and Syria is not Yemen and Tunisia is not Jordan. We have to follow this very closely because in some countries what we are going to get is not an 'Arab Spring' but an 'Islamist Winter.' And some of this will not be good for anybody, not just Israel. And it won't be good for those countries either."