When compared to past years, my consumption of books dealing with the Middle East is definitely down this year. Back when Helen was hosting the Middle East Reading Challenge I was dialed in. Even last year when I was doing a so-so job hosting the challenge it still seemed like every week or so I was posting a review of some book about the Middle East or novel by a Middle Eastern author. But sadly, not anymore. While I’ve reviewed a few of those books here and there, for whatever reason I’ve kinda moved on to feature other kinds of material. Too bad because I think I miss reading books about the Middle East.
Well, fear no more ’cause the subject of this post is a piece of fiction straight out of the Middle East. Amos Oz is a well-known Israeli author I discovered a number of years ago thanks to a piece of his that appeared in The New Yorker. Two years I reviewed his short novel 1997 Panther in the Basement which I liked so much it ended up making my Favorite Fiction List of 2012. This time around I’m featuring a more recent work of his, specifically his Between Friends. Published in 2013, it’s a collection of eight interconnected short stories all set during the late 1950s on a fictitious Israeli Kibbutz. While I didn’t like it as much as Panther in the Basement, I still enjoyed it.
Judging by the eight stories, Kibbutz life is a bit of a contradiction. An egalitarian community founded on socialist and Zionist principles, one would expect the Kibbutz depicted in Between Friends would be a blissful place. Ironically, it seems anything but utopian. It’s a place where children bully each other, marriages disintegrate and middle-aged men philander. It’s also a place where individualism is frowned upon since children are raised communally, permission is needed to visit an invalid father in another town and the opportunity to study abroad is subject to collective approval.
Looking back on Between Friends, what sticks with me the most is probably every one of the eight stories deals in some way with people trying to resolve their personal problems. Perhaps in keeping with the communal nature of the Kibbutz, every one of these problems is relational. While these challenges might get talked about, brought to light or even debated, in the end nothing is ever fully resolved. In that respect, Oz’s Kibbutz’s with all its frustrations, moral ambiguities and disappointments is certainly a reflection of the larger world around it.