Final analysis

One of the authors that I would have probably never have heard of, if it hadn't been for the Before I die challenge is the Israeli author, Amos Oz. His Black box was included in the list of the best 1000 reads.

I'm glad I read it, if only to get a flavour of a novel coming out of a different culture. But would I read anything more by Oz on the strength of Black Box? Sadly probably not.

Unusually for a twentieth-century novel (how different in Jane Austen's time), the novel is primarily in an epistolary form. A divorced couple re-establish contact when their teenage son falls into trouble. Ilana has re-married a conservative Israeli - Michael (Michel) Sommo, who wishes to build a Jewish state throughout the Israeli / Palestinian territories - a very different man from her first husband, Alex Gideon, a liberal lecturer in the United States and England. Alex however is also committed to the state of Israel, albeit perhaps in a rather different way, and was a soldier and a bit of a war hero, during the Six Day War.

The novel charts the changing relationships between Alex, Ilana, and Michel, interspersed with letters from troubled son, Boaz; and Alex's lawyer, Manfred Zakheim, who is determined to save Alex from himself.

The novel both follows the lives of these characters, and also reflects in them the changing, often troubled face of Israel. Michel and Ilana are both incomers to the country - one of Sephardic origin, the other from Eastern Europe with its roots in the Holocaust, young Boaz is the face of new Israel, while Alex and Manfred are from early settlers - the original Israelis. Looking at Oz's biography the character of Alex seems to be modelled (at least in biographical details) on himself. Oz too is on the left-wing, more liberal wing of politics, and was one of the earliest supporters of a two-state solution.

Oddly though, the characters in Black Bo, who are more liberal politically are those who are generally the least likeable, while fundamentalist Michel comes across as a good man (he is even called a good man by other characters) despite his politics. This creates an oddly uncomfortable effect illustrating the differences, that I'm sure do exist within politics, of public and private personas. 

There are moments that are genuinely touching, some that are savagely funny (I did enjoy the correspondence between Gideon and his irascible lawyer), and the writing is uniformly beautiful. And as a commentary on Israel in the 1970s it's fascinating, but somehow the novel failed to take flight. I didn't really like any of these people, Boaz I found unbelievable, and Ilana a cardboard cut-out. I found it hard to care for any of them. And the letters lacked realism - an essential component of any epistolary style - if it isn't going to sound artificial. As soon as I stopped believing in the letters (around p. 40) it was doomed. If you're going to write letters as part of a novel, you've got to be able to absorb the characters that you're writing about, and Ilana, especially, failed to deliver. Interesting read, some stand-out moments, but not something I'm going to read again, or recommend.


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