Years ago I read a piece by Amos Oz in the New Yorker in which he shared his childhood memories of growing up in the young Jewish State of Israel. His writing, for whatever reason, must have made an impression on me because years after that, I’ve been wanting to read more from him. In order to satisfy this urge, I recently acquired a copy of his 2004 memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. However, being the procrastinator that I am, I’ve yet to start reading it. However, that didn’t stop me during one of my recent library visits from grabbing a copy of his short 1997 novel Panther in the Basement. I figured, why not? Since it’s short, reading it should serve as a nice transitional step on the way to reading his more lengthy memoir. After finishing Panther in the Basement a few weeks ago I’m happy to report it’s a rather enjoyable novel.
Set in Jerusalem during the final year of British Mandate, it’s the story of a precocious 12-year-old boy named Proffy and his attempts to navigate the usual hazards associated with a boy’s coming to age: dealing with the early stirrings of romantic love, asserting oneself in his immediate social hierarchy and trying to make sense of the enfolding political drama around him. And of course, that drama happens to be the ongoing battle between Zionists bent of creating a permanent Jewish homeland and the British clinging to hold on in the face of Jewish and Arab resistance. Along the way, we meet his parents (a scholarly father with a library filled with hundreds of old, stately books spanning numerous languages and his mother, a trained nurse known to give covert medical assistance to wounded resistance fighters), his beautiful 19-year-old neighbor girl (loving her secretly and afar as any 12-year-old boy would) and a bumbling but honorable British Sargent. I especially enjoyed his relationship with the Sargent, who enlists Proffy to help him with his Hebrew, since what little Hebrew the Sargent can speak, is actually Biblical Hebrew. When trying to communicate with the locals, in almost comic fashion he comes off sounding like a character from a Shakespearean play.
I can offer no complaints. I enjoyed Oz’s short novel and I’m hoping, maybe, just maybe, it will inspire me to read his memoir. We will see.