"A Disgrace to the Map of Israel": The Wilderness Journey of the Citizen-Soldier in Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace
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A Disgrace to the Map of Israel":
The Wilderness Journey of the Citizen-Soldier in Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace

The act of departure is the bravest and most beautiful of all. A selfish happiness perhaps, but it is happiness—for him who knows how to appreciate it. To be alone, to have no needs, to be unknown, a stranger and at home everywhere and to march, solitary and great, to the conquest of the world.

—Isabelle Eberhardt

When it comes to Israeli literature, even before the advent of "post-Zionist" discourse, the writer's encounter with the timeless desert disrupts certain polarities and essentializing gestures of mainstream Zionist conventions. The desert, with its sands and stark visual display of erosion, is the site that a surprising number of Israeli writers use to explore the difference between national loyalty and diasporic dreaming. In the novels of Amos Oz (b. 1939), who calls the small Negev town of Arad home, the desert serves potentially as a transformative space that lays bare the cracks in the individual's commitment to national identity.

In the Hebraic imagination, long before the collective journey of the people under Moses, Abraham's self-exile from Ur into boundless desert space embodies the brave individuation of one [End Page 97] who transcends the concept of the tribal norms into which he was born. It is as if almost in spite of itself, by privileging anecdotal narratives of protest and spiritual restlessness alongside the law and ritual, the Bible credits the desert as the site of a supreme skepticism that unsettles all nationalist complacency. Given the powerful residual traces of this counter-narrative in the Jewish literary tradition, it seems worth addressing its role as a catalyst for the literary imagination of Oz.1 Relevant to this is critic Joseph Cohen's astute argument about Oz's delicate relation to serving both art and politics in the context of contemporary Israeli reality. Cohen notes Oz's powerful capacity for "bypassing polemicism to move upward to a substantially higher plateau of metapolitical writing. ... Oz is nothing less than a modern mythmaker who has been highly successful in taking the exoticism of Israel's location in the desert and Mediterranean Sea, a country already saturated with a biblical, mystical, apocalyptic and miraculous history, and combining it with the myriad realities of contemporary life" (179). In short, the desert is unrivalled as a formidable influence in the mythopoetic dimensions of Oz's imagination. Yet rather than being seduced by an escapist mystical vision, the novelist is drawn to the desert as a source for clarity in framing complex national realities. Oz, who has for many years lived close to the desert, embraces the biblical sense of the wilderness as a site of "translation" rather than a consolatory haven of inner mystical retreat.

His characters often flee homogenous and complacent insularity—they question the classic kibbutz ideology that Zionism touted as one of its proudest achievements and hedonistically long for a distinct sense of independent selfhood. Thus Oz offers a highly complex response to Israel's existential difficulties. Consciously, he distances himself from an earlier generation's collectively sanctioned ideas.2

Nowhere is this more evident than in the novel A Perfect Peace,3 which bears witness to a significant cultural rupture. The solidarity with the collective that had characterized the Palmach generation of the late forties and early fifties is no longer a sacrosanct assumption of Israel's artists and intellectuals. In this novel, a young man, raised in the shadow of his father's deep faith in the socialist Zionist revolution, fully wakens to the reality that his comfort is centered on a community of dispossessed Arabs, and suffers a violent existential crisis. In Oz's apparent challenge to the colonialist dimension of the Zionist enterprise, he seems to anticipate boldly what has been identified as the post-Zionist spirit of Israel's youngest writers. Yet ultimately, the reader cannot be certain whether Oz is prepared to fully sanction the political implications of his character's angry questioning. [End Page 98]

Perhaps the most widely read novelist among his generation, a formidable influence among the...