A restless 1960s kibbutznik seeks ‘A Perfect Peace’ in Oz’s inquiry on personal and community strife

August 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 15, 2013

Yonatan Lifshitz, age 26, isn’t sure where his destiny lies. But in the winter of 1965, Lifshitz — Yoni to friends and family — becomes convinced that he must break away from the communal Israeli farm where he was born and raised.

Lifshitz’s escape is both aided and delayed by the arrival at Kibbutz Granot of a mysterious young man named Azariah Gitlin. The gregarious foreigner makes quite a contrast with Lifshitz, a taciturn Israeli native. One thing they have in common, however, is their grandiose, unfocused ambitions.

They also come to share the social circle of the insular Kibbutz Granot. Yolek, a lion in both literal and figurative winter, is the patriarch of the Lifshitz clan and a co-founder of the kibbutz; he’s also a Labor Party official who once served in the Israeli cabinet. Yolek takes an immediate liking to Gitlin, an affection that is soon echoed by Yoni’s emotionally distant wife, Rimona.

The action in A Perfect Peace, the 1982 novel by Israeli author Amos Oz, spans a little more than a year. Gitlin finds his place at the kibbutz as Lifshitz works up the nerve to leave it — an adventure that seems liable to plunge the other characters into chaos. When Yolek passes the kibbutz reins to Srulik, his longtime associate, the former struggles to come to grips with his waning influence over family, community and nation as his successor strives to find his feet. Yolek’s friend and rival, the seemingly ineffectual Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, visits the kibbutz and is lectured by a wild-eyed Gitlin. (“If we Jews hate each other so much, why be surprised that the Gentiles hate us?” the young man asks feverishly.) The question of Yoni’s paternity, and of Yolek’s possible role in driving away his wife Hava’s other lover, is relitigated.

But this book is not so much plot-driven as it is a philosophical excursion.

In bed at night, unable to sleep, Yonatan thought that whatever was waiting for him must be wondering where he was and would, if he didn’t hurry, move on without him. In the morning, he padded out to the porch barefoot and in his underwear, to put on his work clothes and mud-caked boots, one of which had yawned open a few days before, its laughing mouth full of rusty nails. Over the frozen screams of the birds he heard himself being paged to pick up and go, not to the [kibbutz’s] grapefruit grove, but to some wholly different place, a place that would be the right place because it would be his own. He better not be late.

Day by day he could feel something fading in him. Was it illness? Sleeplessness? Sometimes, of their own accord, his lips would murmur: Enough. That’s it. Finished.

All the beliefs and ideas that they had instilled in him since childhood had shriveled. Rather, they had simply paled away in his heart. If they discussed at a general kibbutz meeting repeated violations of the egalitarian ethic, or the need for collective authority, or even for plain honesty, Yonatan, sitting by himself at the farthest table in the dining room, behind the southernmost column, would sketch naval destroyers on the paper napkins. If the discussion turned into a particularly long one, he would proceed to aircraft carriers, ships he had never seen except in the movies and illustrated magazines. Whenever he read in the paper of the growing threat of war, he would say to Rimona, nonsense, that’s all these idiots ever do, and turn to the sports section.

Despite the metaphorical and actual jeopardy that Oz’s characters face — which includes the short but deadly Six-Day War, treated by a few sentences on the book’s penultimate page — the people in A Perfect Peace cope by making surprisingly modest adjustments and accommodations in their lives.

In fact, for all that the adolescent nation of Israel depicted here is different from older, more established Western nations, the characters in the novel face day-to-day problems and existential angst that’s surprisingly similar to those that could be found in any American suburb.

And so this book about a restless post-adolescent man and his friends and family constitutes an inquiry about what life means and how responsible men and women should conduct themselves. The answers Oz suggests in his book are provisional — satisfying in theory, yet incomplete in practice.

Actually, Oz implies that we can never have definitive answers to the questions he raises. But we must muddle onward, we must continue to move forward. Oz urges readers to keep searching for the goals that we imagine we want, the perfect peace that we strive to attain but can never have until we breathe our last — if then.

The case presented in A Perfect Peace is incomplete; how could it be otherwise? But the argument is persuasive and moving, and this book, while challenging, is quite rewarding.

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