A creator of worlds

“If I had to tell you in one word what my entire literary work is all about, I would say families”. Amos Oz’s simple description of his literary career resonates throughout his latest piece, Rhyming Life and Death, running alongside the predominant theme of the imagination.

The protagonist of the story, the unnamed Author, sits in a café in Tel Aviv on an uncomfortably hot evening in the 1980s, waiting to give a question and answer session on his book. As he waits, he begins to invent stories and backgrounds for the people he meets. The waitress serving him omelette and coffee is re-named Ricky, and is burdened by fatigue and long-lost love, whilst two shady businessmen in a nearby table who pore over spreadsheets, are named Mr Leon and Shlomo Hougi, they discuss their friend, Ovadya Hazzam-another figment of the Author’s imagination- who used to drive round town in his “blue Buick, always surrounded by helpers”, but who now lies in a hospital bed, dying a slow death from liver cancer.

Imagination, a theme which is at the forefront of this novella, draws the reader into the Author’s world; he is collected, solemn and self-possessed, but under the surface his loneliness becomes apparent. Described as being in his late forties, the solitariness of this character is developed throughout the course of the narrative; at the end of the evening he meets Rochele Reznik, the professional reader, who he invites on a walk around down town Tel Aviv with him. Switching intermittently between the present day and the world of his imagination, the Author finds himself simultaneously walking alone down a dark alley way and climbing the stairs to Rochele’s apartment, intent on seeing her again. As the story develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle fact from fiction; does the Author really wander aimlessly, alone, until four o’clock in the morning when he finally retires to his hotel, or does he find himself in the entrance to Rochele’s apartment building, deliberating over whether or not to go upstairs?

Although Oz leaves this deliberately ambiguous, so that the present and the Author’s imagination mingle fluidly together through the pages, it is the fine detail of these imaginings which makes them so intriguing and entertaining. For instance, the Author does not merely see a young woman standing before him when he meets Rochele, but describes “a pleasant and pretty girl, only not really attractive”, a “pioneer left over from a previous generation”.

{{ quote As the story develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle fact from fiction }}
When he encounters Ricky in the cafe, the inevitable feelings of desire wash over the Author, entranced by her back and her hips, and by her skirt, where “the left side of her knickers is slightly higher than the right side”. This attention to detail courses through the novel, and appears to be ingrained in the Author’s psyche, as Oz provides regular, detailed descriptions of the outside world, for example the “windowless toilet” with its “peeling plaster”, and the hospital room where Hazzam lies, where “with every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells”.

Oz also raises the issue of the role of the author, and the purpose of his books. The book begins with a series of rhetorical questions in quick succession- “Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do?… What role do your books play?” These are all questions which any writer would be confronted by during his career, and must be prepared for, questions which the Author ponders as he waits in the café. That his mind soon wanders to the various people surrounding him, however, allows him to conjure up detailed accounts of the past lives of these passers-by, which also gives the reader an insight into the compulsive side of his mind. Perhaps the Author cannot help but create stories and backgrounds for these random people he meets; perhaps, as he feels compelled to write, he feels compelled to imagine. His skill therefore turns into more of an affliction, especially as his imaginings become increasingly elaborate, and his stories ever more detailed and personal to him.

Returning to the subject of families, although this piece is not concerned with one family that is central to the plot, relationships and blood ties are nevertheless explored here. The Author imagines a young boy who is dragged to his apartment one afternoon by his enthusiastic mother, eager to display her son to the famous author, as well as Arnold Bartok, the young man who lives alone with his mother, caring for her in her frailty. These relationships, although they are more subsidiary than the relationship between the Author and Rochele, do pervade the text with a richness and a diversity which would otherwise be lacking. Alongside lust and a form of romantic love which can be identified by the two female protagonists, Rochele and Ricky, the family-style bonds which encircle these more minor characters enliven the text and add variety to the Author’s imagined world.

In Rhyming Life and Death, Oz has created a complex and colourful world, where imagination and reality mingle and collide, and where a diverse range of relationships are played out alongside one another.

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