Saturday, January 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: Amos Oz's "The King of Norway"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 3.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.]

Luna said, "Why do you take all the sorrow of the world on your shoulders?"
And Zvi replied, "Closing your eyes to the cruelty of life is, in my opinion, both stupid and sinful. There's very little we can do about it. So we have to at least acknowledge it.

In this very short story, Oz introduces us to Zvi, known around the kibbutz as the "Angel of Death" due to his propensity to "convey bad news." The dialogue above occurs about halfway in, as he talks to Luna, who is known as the "Black Widow," on account of the way she had "overcome tragedy and poured her entire soul into her teaching," a name that doesn't nearly fit her as well as Zvi's does for himself. Out of the blue, seemingly, the two have decided to meet, and Luna develops feelings for this sorrow-bearing man, a man who apparently takes the weight off her shoulders, too: "She felt that their relationship was precious and she appreciated the way it filed her days, which until then had been so flat and monotonous." But he, of course, always dwelling on the worst, bearing its weight on his shoulders, is afraid to get involved: "He had begun to feel that their relationship was heading toward a disastrous place he did not want to go, a place that repulsed him."

And that's it. That's the story. No real explanations, no real character development, no real story. There are hints that this is a parable for the Israel-Arab relationships in the Middle East, but then again, I get the sense that you can pretty much always say that about stories written in or about Israel. But it's far too thin to amount to much, and in fact, the story would be far better off if pared down even more: the story's about Zvi, and tangentially about Luna; we don't really need to hear the politics (or get the descriptions) of the stuttering Emanuel Glozman ("We'll w-w-w-win and t-t-take their l-l-land all the w-w-way to the J-J-Jordan") or Reuvkeh Roth ("a small bald man with large, batlike ears, [who] would mumble that retaliatory raids only accelerated the circle of violence, because revenge begets revenge and retaliation begets retaliation"). Couple that with two references to the title character (who is dying of cancer), and you've got a story struggling with a lack of identity. Which, I suppose, you could also read into. If you're desperate to justify this as a story.

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