Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Amos Oz' Don't Call It Night (1995) is almost a perfect novel but I wonder how much I'll remember in three months. I've read other Oz novels and although I'm convinced he's Nobel material, I cannot recall much about them.

Here, plot and characterisation work closely together. The book is written in short chapters from the alternating points of view of Theo and Noa, a couple living in a small town outside Tel Aviv in Israel. Theo's an older man, a retired planning bigwig. Noa's a teacher with a predilection for colourful skirts. They met in Argentina and it seems to be a relationship made in heaven. They're not married but share quiet moments of closeness and treat each other with kindness and consideration.

Until Immanuel dies. A student of Noa's, the strange, withdrawn boy especially liked his language teacher. When his father comes to the funeral, he makes Noa a proposition: to set up a shelter for drub addicts. Immanuel suicided when under the influence. Or so it seems.

And this is where the plot really kicks in, because despite the fact that Noa assembles some supporters among the townspeople, it was always going to be a hard sell to get civic authorities to agree to establish a half-way house for the drug affected. Things drag on. Theo tries to impose some order into Noa's system of filing but she tells him to back off. Time drags and nothing seems to get finished.

The many characters involved in the work in progress impose their own tax on our patience, although it's a small tax because Oz writes so well. Nevertheless, we are irritated that Noa, having come up against a brick wall, starts spending more and more time with a young girl who she has in class, called Tal.

Theo notices, too. Even though they've bought a building for the drug centre, it seems that the town's will is stronger than the idealism of the putative founders of this worthy institution. When the mayor, a friend of Theo's, puts up objections and when one of the core members starts to speak out against it, it seems as though the game's up.

But we're never sure. Perhaps it doesn't matter. In any case, we see a society affected by the same things that afflict other Western societies, but on a small, parochial scale. How Theo and Noa deal with this is more interesting than whether it comes off. And how they interact - the small kindnesses, the thoughts they have about one another - seems, to me, to be the most important element in the novel.

The grey dust of the desert threatens to conquer all but it is the way individuals deal with its encroaching menace that matters. Oz has written another great book, and reading this is well worth the trouble.

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