Sunday, 26 February 2006

Review: Fima, Amos Oz (1991)

The story opens with Efraim, 54, getting ready for his shift at the gynaecological clinic where he works. His shift starts at 1:00 p.m. The morning is spent in a cloud of dissatisfaction and small vexations. His dream-book, which he writes in, conscientiously, every morning, suggests a history, however, and before we launch into the story of how he got married, the day is a bit of a mess. Efraim, or Fima, as his friends call him, is a dreamer, both awake and asleep, a man pursued by his own doubts through the winter streets of Jerusalem, pursued by the shadows of his past. And he pursues others, pursues love and companionship, yearns for compassion. He is not an easy person to know, it seems, but his intentions, clear to us, are good.

The story about how Yael and Fima got married is spectacular, like a monologue by a dumb comedian. The speed of the narrative is stunning. This little fable could be entitled ‘how Efraim chose his wife’:

Less than a month after the conclusion of this trip Fima went to Yavne’el to look for the third girl. He discovered that Yael Levin was a graduate of the aeronautical engineering department of the Haifa Technicon and worked in a top-secret air force installation in the hills west of Jerusalem. After a few meetings he found that her presence made him feel restful, while his presence amused her in her placid way. When he asked her, hesitantly, whether she thought they were suited to each other, she replied, ‘I quite like the way you talk.’ He thought this indicated a hint of affection. Which he treasured. Next he sought out Liat Sirkin and sat with her for half an hour in a little seaside café, simply to make certain he had not made her pregnant. But afterwards he allowed himself to sleep with her again in a cheap hotel in Bat Yam, so he wasn’t certain any more.

The novel is humorous, always sliding onto irony, never satire. The humour is in keeping with the sleepy tone of the story. Oz’s description of Dr Wahrhaftig is a tiny capsule of the humour that animates this novel:

He was a stocky man with the build of a basso profundo, and his face had the florid, flabby look of an alcoholic, crisscrossed with an unhealthy network of blood vessels that were so near the surface, you could almost take his pulse by their throbbing. He had a joke for every occasion, invariably introduced with the phrase ‘There is a well-known story about.’ And he always burst out laughing when he got close to the punch line. Fima, who had already heard ad nauseam why the dead man was late for his own funeral, nevertheless let out a faint laugh, because he was fond of this tender-hearted tyrant. Wahrhaftig was constantly delivering long lectures in his stentorian voice about such subjects as the connection between your eating habits and your world-view, or about the ‘socialistic’ economy and how it encouraged idleness and fraud and was therefore unsuited to a civilised country. Wahrhaftig would utter these last words in a tone of mystical pathos, like a true believer praising the works of the Almighty.

Baruch Nomberg, Fima’s father, appears out of the cloud of uncertainty that shrouds Fima’s mornings:

His father was bending over the window of the taxi, apparently lecturing the driver, with his white hair waving in the breeze, his hat in his left hand and his carved stick with the silver band in the other. Fima knew that the old man was not haggling about the fare or waiting for his change; he was finishing an anecdote he had started telling on the way. For fifty years now he had been conducting an extended seminar with Jerusalem taxi drivers on Hasidic tales and pious stories. He was a dedicated storyteller. And he had a fixed habit of commenting on every anecdote and pointing up the moral lesson. Whenever he told a joke, he would follow it by explaining what the point was. Sometimes he would carry on and explain both the apparent point and the real point. His commentaries always made his listeners laugh, which encouraged the old man to tell more stories and explain them too. He was convinced that the point of the stories had escaped everybody, and that it was his duty to open their eyes.

He is a settled character, a point of fixity. Fima is different. His laxity with domestic chores is rendered as a concomitant of his mental habits. He cannot organise his life because he is ground down by politics into a wavering mass of opinions.

The infected apple rolled off the top of the heap and managed to find itself a hiding place among the old canisters and bottles of cleaning fluid. It could only be reached by getting down on all fours. Fima made up his mind that this time there would be no compromise, he would not give up as usual, he would recapture the fugitive at all costs. If he succeeded, he would take it as a green light, and he would maintain the momentum by taking the bin downstairs to empty it. On the way back he would remember to fish the newspaper and his post out of the letter box at last. He would continue by washing up and tidying the refrigerator, and at the risk of making himself late he would even change the sheets.

We never feel that Fima’s father, the rich industrialist, would have these problems. He’d just get his maid to tidy up for him.

As Fima goes about his daily tasks the political situation of Israel confounds and obsesses him. Notions of futurity cause him to invent a fictitious person who will inhabit his flat in a hundred years’ time. He even given this personage a name: Yoezer.

The Syrians will invade the Golan Heights with a thousand tanks, we’ll bomb Damascus, they’ll fire a salvo of missiles at the coastal towns, and then we’ll set off the doomsday mushroom. In a hundred years there won’t be a living soul here. No Yoezer, no lizard, no cockroach.
  but Fima rejected the word ‘holocaust’ because it could also be associated with natural disasters such as floods, epidemics, and earthquakes. What the Nazis did, by contrast, was an organised, premeditated crime that ought to be called by its proper name: murder. And nuclear war will also be a criminal act. Neither ‘holocaust’ nor ‘doomsday’. Fima also ruled out the word ‘conflict’, which might describe the business of Annette and her husband, or Tsvi Kropotkin and his teaching assistant, but not the bloody war between us and the Arabs. In fact, even the sad case of Annette and Yuri could hardly be categorised with such a sterile term as ‘conflict’. As for the expression ‘bloody war’, it was a tired cliché. Even ‘tired cliché’ was a tired cliché. You’ve got yourself into a muddle, pal.

Oz’s humour is pervasive and glimmers when it doesn’t gleam. It kicks in at odd moments, shifting attention from the action at hand to the recurring sub-themes that are threaded through the narrative like occasional traffic outside the windows.

Even though it was only half past three, the room was growing so dark that Tamar had to switch the light on to see her crossword puzzle. As she stood there with her back to him, Fima made up his mind to stand behind her and hug her, to bury her weary head in the hollow of his neck and switch off their thoughts, to sprinkle kisses on the nape of her neck and the roots of her lovely hair gathered up into such a neat little bun, which could be undone for once and set free. But he thought better of this, and they spent a little while together trying to discover the identity of a famous Finnish general, ten letters. At that moment Fima resigned himself to the realisation that, when all was said and done, he was not made of the stuff of great leaders who have the power to make history, to end wars, to heal the hearts of the masses consumed by suspicion and despair. He derived some comfort from the thought that the present political leaders were not made of this stuff either. Less so, if anything.

Like most people, Fima is looking for love and finds it in the arms of various women, even though — needless to say — their sessions are not always satisfactory. Fima’s thoughts fill up the pages like piles of poker chips won from the fictive gamble: but here it is the reader who wins most often.

A couple of nights ago he had let Nina down, on the rug at her home, and this morning, thanks to Annette, he had let her down again in his own bed. His heart shrank as he remembered how she had stroked his forehead with her wonderfully shaped fingers and whispered to him that like this, with his limp cock, he was penetrating her more deeply than during intercourse. How rare, almost mystical, those words seemed now; they seemed to glow with a precious radiance as he recalled them, and he craved to mend what he had spoiled, to give her and Annette and also Tamar and Yael and every woman in the world, including the plain and unwanted ones, a proper carnal love, and a fatherly and brotherly love, and a spiritual love too.

Every now and then Fima tries to imagine another Fima, in a different, more ordered and happier life. Fima is a dreamer, a lover of words and a romantic who asks what can be done about society. But he is also like a child, needing help from others. But giving back his own precious essence.

The policeman sitting in the sentry box in front of the residence poked his head out and asked:
  ‘Hey, you: are you looking for something?’
  Fima replied:
  ‘Yes. I’m looking for tomorrow.’
  ‘Well, go and look for it somewhere else, sir. Move along please. You can’t wait here.’
  Fima decided to take his advice. To move along. Keep going. Not give up. Go on struggling as long as he had the strength to fit one word to another and to discriminate between ideas.

And in the background there are the troubles of Israel, the history of the pogroms, the darkness of Jerusalem:

And indeed, at that moment Fima sensed the full weight of the darkness lying over Jerusalem. Darkness on steeples and domes, darkness on walls and towers, darkness on stone-walled yards and on the groves of ancient pines, on convents and olive trees, on mosques and caves and sepulchres, on tombs of kings and of true and false prophets, darkness on winding alleys, darkness on government buildings and on ruins and gates and on stony fields and thistle-strewn waste plots, darkness on schemes and desires and lunatic visions, darkness on the hills and on the desert.

Taking a break from polemics, Fima takes the air — the view from his balcony stimulates his mystical side, and he daydreams in the cold air:

The ancient Aramaic phrases, such as ‘days of yore’, ‘not of the world’, ‘the concealed side’, filled Fima with a sense of mystery and awe. For a moment he asked himself if it was not possible after all that the light and the mud, the glow-worms in the almond tree and the radiant sky, the arid land extending eastwards from here to Mesopotamia and southwards to Bab el-Mandeb at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and indeed his shabby flat and his ageing body and even his broken telephone, were all nothing but different expressions of the same being, condemned to be dissolved into countless flawed, perishable embodiments, even though in itself it is whole and eternal and one. Only on a winter morning like this, under the nuptial veil of limpid light, which is perhaps what is meant by the ancient Aramaic phrase ‘supernal radiance', does the earth along with your watching eyes recover the thrill of that primordial touch. And everything returns to its state of original innocence. As on the day of its creation. For an instant the constant murky cloak of dreariness and lying is removed.