To Know a Woman– Amos Oz

Know a Woman


Amos Oz has written 18 books in Hebrew, and about 450 articles and essays. His works have been translated into some 30 languages. He was awarded his country’s most prestigious prize: the Israel Prize for Literature in 1998, and is often mentioned for consideration of the Nobel Prize for Literature…

His 1989 Harcourt Book published novel, To Know a Woman translated by Andrew De Lang, is about Yoel Ravid, an Israeli Secret Service agent, and his attempt to re-establish himself in a quotidian life in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. A standout in his profession as a guardian of a country, by his training he is a keen observer, a decoder of the give and take of human contact. He processes information unemotionally like a machine, his comrades at his section call him “the human lie detector”. After a personal disaster, which leads to a decision to take early retirement, his struggle is to now be a guardian in his own household. He finds he can not ‘decode’, the women in his own extended family he has settled in the city, especially his own wife and daughter. This is the central conceit, he also can not ‘awaken’ to connect, with the day to day humanity, to decipher a purpose in an existence whose meanings don’t lend themselves to his methods, he has not engaged emotionally. He has trouble “formulating the proper question”, of the how and the why a man stands up, is grounded on the other side of his former structured and demanding role as a nightwatchman for an entire country.

A recurring symbol is a figurine of a blind a leaping tiger that stands from its base by only one claw attached, he can not figure out what holds it up or how it is attached, and this seemingly little detail is foregrounded periodically. He finally hands the tiger to a young man who is seeing his daughter and is a mechanical wizard, and asks him what he makes of it. The boy responds by telling him, “you should not be asking how it is attached, but where is its center of gravity”. On one level the tiger is a referent of a form menace that is blind (chance for example), poised and is held in suspension, but also to Yoel himself. He has to ask himself where his center of gravity is. Any more detail than that would be a spoiler…

His is sterile existence, and he knows this, so ironically he makes it his mission to fill their small yard with every form of landscaping vegetation imaginable, in his attempt to awaken, to finally figure things out…There is some real nice scenes with exchanges with his daughter, and enough mystery of past incidents with his former operatives that beckons and haunts both Yoel and the narrative to keep the plot interesting. Upon more distance from reading this novel, it has resonated more deeply with me, tho I feel that the side story with the American neighbors clunked in several ways.



Filed under Amos Oz

4 responses to “To Know a Woman– Amos Oz

  1. john h

    I’m about halfway into this now and really enjoying it. I’d seen Oz’s books around for years of course but never quite knew where to start with him. I don’t know how representative this is of his work but based on what I’ve seen so far I’ll surely keep him in mind in the future.

  2. Randy

    John I had also seen his name mentioned as a respected writer for few years. This is the first I have read of his. I would read other works by him in a heartbeat. Most mention is his earlier A Perfect Peace. I also looked at his The Same Sea, which is a novel written as a long narrative poem.
    This novel definitely meant more to me after it ‘aged’ a few days after I had finished it.

  3. john h

    I just finished the book and couldn’t agree more, promptbr, about the side story of the American brother and sister. It was farcical to say the least. I don’t know if this is an example of Israeli humor or what but the book would have been stronger without it.

    What I liked most was obsessiveness of Yoel’s thoughts–the way he kept returning to certain key incidents from his spy past. That and the whole business of his daughter’s illness–how he and his wife viewed it differently. Very enjoyable.

    • Randy

      The novel would have been stronger, and at least more focused without the side story of the improbable and quirky Americans. I liked this novel a lot more after it ‘simmered’, it took that long for the nuances, like the points you mention, to seep in . Funny.

      I did some googling and found out Oz is currently “Visiting Writer” at Stanford. I just added his early novel, My Michael, his mid-period most famous A Perfect Peace, and his later experimental The Same Sea to the ‘basket’. I think he has a great shot at the Nobel this year (combo of age, credentials, and the biggee, he’s ‘geo-politically correct’.)

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