‘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!

‘Blooms of Darkness’ by Ahron Appelfeld

At the age of eight, with the German invasion of Romania, Ahron Appelfeld was deported with his father to a work camp in the Ukraine. His mother was killed in the invasion. Separated from his father, Appelfeld escaped and survived by his wits for more than two years.

Regarded until his death in 2018 as fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust (Philip Roth), Appelfeld frequently revisited his own childhood experiences in his novels and short stories – and Blooms of Darkness is no different.

In an unnamed Ukrainian city, with Jews being randomly rounded up on a daily basis from the ghetto, 11 year-old Hugo is taken by his mother, at the dead of night, through the city sewers. Their destination is The Residence, home of childhood friend Marianna, who has agreed to hide the boy. At their separation, mother and child are destined never to see each other again.

Hugo is to the spend the next two years essentially living in the closet in Marianna’s room, a room where by night she entertains her (mostly German military) clients. With his father and uncle having disappeared months earlier, school friends sent in hiding to the mountains and the random violence towards Jews by both Germans and Ukrainians, Hugo has already learned not to ask but to listen instead to the silence between the words. And so it is with his early days in The Residence, where Marianna keeps to her promise, feeding him and sheltering the boy from harm.

Hidden away, Hugo invents a world filled with people of his past – his mother and friends Anna and Otto in particular. But Marianna’s daytime world slowly replaces this memory and, over time, the boy is seduced by the, to him, sensual world of perfumes, brandy and sexuality.

The Russian victory in the east over the fleeing German army after nearly two years of hiding brings with it unexpected concerns – Marianna (and all the other women in the brothel) is labelled a collaborator. As they flee the city into the mountains, roles are reversed and Hugo finds himself the protector.

Blooms of Darkness is a deeply moving novel, a deeply individual perspective of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, a perspective away from the death camps. Loss and loneliness remains writ large as events beyond the boy’s understanding unfold around him. Returning to his home at the end of the novel, Hugo discovers that much is familiar and little has changed. Except the haunting absence of its pre-war residents. His parents’ pharmacy is a grocery, their home occupied.

The house stands where it always was. On the pleasant, broad balcony that looked onto the city hangs blue laundry. The windows on the side are bare, and people can be seen inside. The big chandelier in the living room still hangs from the ceiling. For a long time Hugo stands there and looks, and what he had felt upon arriving at the city centre now hits him with full force: the soul has fled from this precious place.

Published in 2006 in Hebrew, Blooms of Darkness was translated by Jeffrey M. Green and was awarded the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

‘Panther in the Basement’ by Amos Oz

It’s 1947 and, with British soldiers patrolling the streets and imposing evening-to-early-morning curfews, Jerusalem is a city on the edge.

As the British Mandate in Palestine draws to its inevitable end and the battle lines between Jews and Arabs slowly come to the fore, 12 year-old Proffy is caught up in the fervour and unrest – and dreams of adventure. The nearby hillsides echo with the sounds of bullets and explosions and the silences of the family apartment are occasionally interrupted by fervent knockings and hushed whispers late into the night.

Amos Oz’s wonderfully vivid novella (a mere 122 pages) is a rites-of-passage story of a teenage boy growing up in a troubled city. Semi-autobiographical, the bookish Proffy spends the summer with friends Ben Hur and Chita as members of a fictional underground group fighting the British. He is ‘an excited panther in the basement, seething with oaths and vows, knowing exactly…to what he will dedicate his life, for what he will sacrifice it when the moment of truth comes.’ But then he is accused of treason by the movement, spotted in a café fraternising with the enemy, one Sergeant Dunlop. Appeals of counter-espionage fall on deaf ears: Proffy is forced to understand the true nature of loyalty and betrayal.

In this short novel, Oz beautifully captures a pivotal moment in the life of Proffy, his family and his about-to-be country. It’s the last days of an occupying force and a time of many questions. The boy is young but not purely innocent: those questions of himself and the world around him need to be asked – and preferably answered. But it is only as an adult 40 years later that understanding, to some degree, can be achieved.