AMOS OZ, a 42-year-old sabra, lives, works the land, writes, and teaches on a kibbutz. Considered Israel's foremost contemporary novelist, he also has attained international stature as an uncompromising honest writer of great passion and power. Where the Jackals Howl consists of eight short stories written in the '60s but "extensively" revised for this new collection. Six revolve around kibbutz life, one takes place in Jerusalem, and one is an imaginative fleshed-out Biblical tale.
Oz writes about the pioneers, the sabras, the European intellectuals and refugees who had the dream, fought the wars, established a political ideology, and forged a nation. But, the reality is not as sweet as the dream. These are disquieting stories, sensual, poetic, grotesque, and unsparing. Their characters are not the joyous prototype kibbutzniks of the United Jewish Appeal posters. Oz describes a people under mental, emotional, and physical seige; a society going about its mundane business gripped by a steadily mounting unease. From the Galilee to the Judean Hills, the dangers of the frontier and the dangers of war are ever present -- while the ever-present jackals howl in the gathering darkness just beyond the gates.
Although each story contains a wealth of descriptive detail, several, "Where the Jackals Howl," "The Trappist Monastery," and "Strange Fire," are merely vignettes or extended character studies. Two of the most moving stories (there are no happy ones) are connected.
In "Nomad and Viper," unmarried Geula, "twenty-nine or so," has "A pair of bitter lines . . . etched at the corners of her mouth." Taking her usual solitary walk in the orchard, Geula encounters a young Bedouin shepherd, one of many driven north by the drought. Later that night she is to attend a meeting to discuss the petty pilfering, crop damage, and hoof and mouth disease attributed to the drifting nomads. But, meanwhile, they converse haltingly, and smoke. He prays, then, frightened by her intensity, runs away. Afterwards, she becomes hysterical, fantasizing that he has tried to rape her. Later still, lying in the bushes, pierced by sharp slivers of glass, she dreams: "How she longed to make her peace and to forgive. Not to hate him and wish him dead . . ." Meanwhile a gang of youngsters, sticks in hand, rushes across the fields towards the nomad encampment.
In "Before His Time," a second story about Geula, "Her mouth is like a curved dagger." This story, which takes place 20 years before, describes how Geula's father "left his orchard and his family and the kibbutz and went out to roam the land . . . Generations of jackals have passed away since then, but the young ones follow the lead of their fathers, and nothing is changed." Ehud, Geula's brother, becomes first a wanderer, then a major in the army, and finally is killed in battle. Before his comrades can recover his body, the jackals have torn his face. And as the father dies, "The jackal pack of the Bethlehem hills gave a laugh. Their laughter ran through the empty streets of the night . . . When the kibbutz was founded we believed that we really could turn over a new leaf, but there are things that cannot be set right and should be left as they have been since the beginning of time . . . I did not know there is no point in leaving a fingerprint on the face of the water."
Next to this bitter hopelessness, the most tragic element in these stories is the dreadful plight of the women. Although, throughout, there is a universal note of cynicism and dissatisfaction, at least many of the men have achieved noteworthy goals -- they are leaders, planners, intellectuals, bureaucrats, fighters, heroes. But the women are almost all bitter, sad, aimless, empty -- used drones or sexual objects peripheral to the life of their men and their community. Geula's main function is to brew coffee for committee meetings; Galila, of "Where the Jackals Howl," is Matityahu's revenge for being the eternal outsider. In "The Way of the Wind" a famous theoretician marries only to beget a son and then discards the incidental wife. Bruria, in "The Trappist Monastery," allows herself to be pawed and abused by the military idol Itcheh. The long storyline of "A Hollow Stone" is built around the deterioration of Batya Pinski whose husband deserted her for the Spanish Civil War. Now an old hag, she lives only for her tropical fish and the publication of his papers with a dedication to herself.
And, is it merely chance that Oz includes the Biblical tale of Jephthah ("Upon This Evil Earth"), and the poignant sacrifice of his only daughter to a God who chose not to stay his hand, even though that God had, many generations before, stayed Abraham's from the sacrifice of a son?
Amos Oz is a writer of many faces. He weaves facts with poetry, and slips easily and imperceptibly into fantasy. All the stories in "Where the Jackals Howl" are dark and tantalizing, and some have moments of heartbreaking beauty. Followers of Oz will find a number of these early stories rewarding for their unforgettable imagery, their stark unflattering candor, their fascinating ambiguities. Several, however, are overdrawn, too obvious in their symbolism, and frustrating when they simply stop without resolution, leaving the reader hanging.
New readers probably will do better to start with Oz's later works, among which are: The Hill of Evil Counsel (three interrelated stories), and the novel My Michael (both play out yet another devastating view of male-female relationships), or the powerful Chagall-like fantasy, Touch the Water, Touch the Wind. Each is more fully developed, and thus, more satisfying. These works will fortify the reader with a better understanding of oz's point of reference. Then the dense, shadowy moods of his early pessimism -- a pessimism which may well mirror the current tensions of a people once again facing war -- will quite readily fall into place.