‘My Michael’ by Amos Oz

A beautifully rendered evocation of time and place (Jerusalem in the 1950s), My Michael sees first year Hebrew literature student, Hannah, meet and later marry geology student, Michael. They are both young – too young – and are not emotionally prepared for marriage. Having given up her studies, an intelligent but bored Hannah becomes more and more dissatisfied and slowly deteriorates into a private fantasy world of derring-do and sexual encounters.

The unassuming, pipe-smoking Michael, as a scientist, is calm, methodical, unemotional. Living in a religious neighbourhood in a cramped apartment, he wants to save and move to a better part of the city. The romantic Hannah is more profligate, offsetting her loneliness with occasional shopping sprees. She becomes increasingly unstable as a distance develops between the two. The birth of their son, Yair Zalman, fails to bring closeness as Hannah slips further and further into post-natal depression and an emotional breakdown.

It’s a lyrical, haunting novel of time and place set during an unstable period of history as the newly formed Israel looks to survive. But Oz’s second novel is not a narrative of open, armed struggle – My Michael is Hannah’s story of personal struggle but which mirrors that of the growing pains of the state. It’s a novel rich with imagery, dense with symbols as Hannah yearns for excitement instead of the reliability of Michael or the tedium of their older, religious neighbours. A life of mundane routine with limited finances is not the life she dreamt of as a child. A princess ruling over her subjects, usually in the form of two Arab brothers – friends from childhood – are closer to the realms of expectation.

Hannah is not an easy person to like or empathise with – but then Michael, though loyal and decent, is somewhat unimaginative and rather dull. As a left-wing Zionist and kibbutznik, Amos Oz is likely exploring through them aspects of Zionism along with commentary on religion, science and art as well as an allegory of the unfolding of the future State of Israel. But there are also suggestions that My Michael is a reflection on his own parents’ marriage. For a shortish novel with very little happening within its pages (even the Sinai War/Suez Crisis of 1956 takes place in terms of Michael, having being mobilised, being absent from the apartment in Jerusalem), My Michael is as dense as it comes!

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