Talking With Amos Oz

Amos Oz is an Israeli author of international acclaim whose works have been translated into more than 45 languages. In May, along with playwright Tom Stoppard and former U.S. vice president Al Gore, he will receive the Dan David Award, totaling $3 million. Oz, 69, who teaches literature at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel, was cited by the judges for "portraying historical events while emphasizing the individual and for personal exploration of the tragic conflict between two nations." A founding member of the Peace Now Movement, Oz has always been at the forefront of the Israeli struggle for identity and a staunch advocate of a two-state solution. He recently spoke to NEWSWEEK's Joanna Chen at his home in Tel Aviv about literature, politics and voices of the dead that won't go away.

NEWSWEEK: What do you think makes your writing so accessible to people all over the world?
Amos Oz:
I suppose there is something universal in the provincial. My books are very local, but in a strange way I find that the more local, parochial and provincial, the more universal literature can be.

Why have so few of your books been translated into Arabic?
The Arabic translation matters to me more than any other. It's the one I feel involved in most. Unfortunately, there is a wall of resistance with the Arab countries. Many Arab publishers won't touch anything coming from Israel, whether it comes from the hawks or the doves.

What have you done to remedy this?
"A Tale of Love and Darkness" is now being translated into Arabic by the family of George Khoury, a Palestinian-Israeli student who was shot in the head by terrorists who mistook him for a Jew while jogging in Jerusalem. I'm very moved by this and by the very noble decision of the family to treat this book as a bridge between the nations.

What role do you think the past plays in determining the future of this region?
The past almost dominates this region—it doesn't just play a role. I think this is one of the tragedies of this region. People remember too well and they remember too much. Both Jews and Arabs carry deep injuries, dramatic injuries.

Should the two sides put these memories away and get on with correcting the present?
We can do that. We can also use our memories as building material for the future. We can say, for example, these particular traumatic memories [serve as] a lesson in how to treat other people, how we should treat our own minorities. This is one way to deal with the past.

You've talked about a compromise of pain and clenched teeth. Can't there be a happy ending?
No, I don't believe in a happy ending to this kind of tragic conflict. Essentially because this is a conflict between right and right. Any compromise will mean concession; it will mean renouncing something which both parties very strongly regard as their own, and both parties had very good reasons to regard as their own, so a compromise will be like an amputation for both sides. There are no happy compromises.

What used to be a local confrontation between the Arab and the Jew has become a global affair.
When I was a child it was rather similar to the conflict in Belfast: a neighborhood against another neighborhood. It evolved into a large-scale conflict between Israel and parts of the Arab world, and unfortunately this coincides with a conflict between the West and Islam. Let me immediately add that I don't believe in the clash of civilizations. It's not about Islam versus Christianity. It's not about East versus West. It's about the fanatics versus the rest of us.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited you to his house last year. What did you discuss?
I'm not going into the details, because it was a private conversation, but I can tell you that this is a very common practice in this country. Prime ministers invite writers and poets for a soul-searching tête-à-tête and ask them where the country has gone wrong. And they admire the writer's answers and ignore them completely.

Do you think writers still express the social conscience of the people?
There is a long-standing expectation in the Jewish tradition that the writer and the poet will somehow be the heir of the prophet. Of course, no writer can deliver this, and even prophets were not very successful in their day in changing the minds of the people. But the expectation exists.

You've spoken out against the threatened Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.
By doing so we will unite the entire Palestinian people and perhaps the entire Arab world around Hamas. It will raise public opinion for Hamas. If we are not careful we will achieve this consequence. It hasn't happened yet, but it might.

What do you think the people on both sides really want?
The vast majority of the Israeli Jews and the vast majority of the Palestinian Arabs know now that at the end of the day there will be two states, two capital cities in Jerusalem, no massive return of refugees into Israel proper and a removal of most of the settlements. They know it, even people on both sides who don't like it.

Is the Zionist project still alive and kicking?
I think it's a success story, but like any dream that comes true it tastes bitter. The only way to keep a dream rosy and intact is never to try to live it out. This is true not only of creating a nation. This is true of writing a novel, planting a garden, living out a sexual fantasy. Zionism is lived out, and as such it is disappointing. But this is not about the nature of Zionism; this is about the nature of dreams.

Do you think America is helping the peace process?
Yes. I would like to see the U.S. seriously encouraging Israel to make the necessary concessions for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Encouraging Israel also means reassuring Israel. Israel will have to take huge risks by renouncing the occupied territories, by renouncing some of its defenses. In this respect not only the U.S. but the entire world would help both sides by extending as much empathy to both as possible.

What do you think of the Iranian threat?
I'm afraid that in 10 or 15 years from now every country that wants it will have the means of mass destruction, so the campaign against Iran is a lost case. I am personally more nervous about Pakistan than I am about Iran. Pakistan is a nuclear state with a very powerful Islamic movement, so I am more nervous about Pakistan than I am about Iran.

Do you have literary favorites?
I don't have a shelf with beloved masterpieces, but Anton Chekhov is very close to my heart, perhaps the closest. He makes me laugh and cry, sometimes he makes me laugh and cry at the same time, which is what I tried to do in "A Tale of Love and Darkness": to erase the line between tragedy and comedy. I no longer believe that tragedy and comedy are two different planets. They are just two different windows from which we can view the same landscape of our lives.

How do you plan your books?
I don't plan them. It's sudden. I hear some voices inside my head, voices of characters, voices of people. I don't know who those people are, but they talk inside my head, and I don't recognize those voices initially. Eventually, if they stay with me for long enough I become familiar with them. And gradually the voices become characters, and what they do to each other is the plot. But it always begins with an assembly of voices.

Your mother committed suicide when you were a child. Do you ever hear her voice?
Sometimes, yes. I very often hear the voices of dead people. Dead people are very important to me.

What if a person doesn't want to hear the voices of dead people?
Not hearing those voices is missing part of yourself, part of your life. When I wrote "A Tale of Love and Darkness" I was inviting the dead to my home for coffee. I said to them, "Sit down. Let's have a cup of coffee and talk. When you were alive we didn't talk much. We talked about politics and current affairs, but we didn't talk about things that matter … And after the talk and the coffee you'll go away. You're not staying to live in my home. But you are invited to drop by from time to time for a cup of coffee." This in my view is the right way to treat the dead.

You wrote that as a child you wanted to grow up to be a book. Is a book more enduring than a person?
It was a matter of personal safety. I was afraid. I was a terrified little child. Rumors were beginning to come to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1940's about the mass murder of the Jews in Europe. The air was full of premonitions about the same destiny awaiting the Jews of Jerusalem. I thought it would be safer to grow up and become a book than to become a man, because as a book at least a copy of me would survive in some far-away library in some far-away country.