WITH "To Know a Woman" Amos Oz joins the group of writers - Seamus Heaney in Ireland, John Coetzee in South Africa - who by confronting their self-divided countries, project a promise of healing. Oz was born in Jerusalem, has fought in two wars for the Israeli Army, and lived for 30 years on a kibbutz before moving his family to the desert town of Arad. His father was a famous Zionist; he himself works for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians through the grass-roots organization called Peace Now.
"To Know a Woman" turns away from Israel's distress, or at least seems to. Like his 1988 novel "Black Box," it constitutes in his words, "an observation on the human condition formulated on the Israeli scene."
The "human condition" in question is that of a retired secret-service agent named Yoel Ravid. Like Oz, Ravid has dedicated himself to the welfare of the state of Israel. With the accidental death of his wife, Ravid retires, moves his family from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Despite the many ways he finds of perfecting his domestic situation, Ravid can't seem to settle down. He watches TV - with his daughter, the grandmas, and his neighbor, a woman from the United States who is, like him, seeking an answer wit h
out quite knowing the question. Part of the novel's power derives from Oz's ability to invest the ordinary with mystery. We shadow Ravid, entering into an almost conspiratorial bond with the author. Through flashbacks, we learn of his life as a secret agent in the arms trade. The state of mind he maintained and can't seem to turn off involves a dimension of awareness, of suspicion, of continually living undercover. He begins to believe that the world is in code or many, unrelated codes. Eternal vigilance b e
comes an end in itself.
Uncannily, Oz reveals Ravid's detachment through domestic scenes remarkable for their warmth. Ravid often meets Netta in the wee hours snacking in the kitchen. It's through Netta that we come to do for Ravid what he can't begin to do for himself. He's impervious to self-knowledge, based as that would have to be on a separation between his frail self and the ideological concept of the state. But such is Oz's talent that as we read, we offer Ravid something like forgiveness. In one way, this is a minimali s
t novel with continuities and crises. One continuity involves a statue of a leaping raptor that obsesses Ravid: He can't see why it doesn't fall over. Eventually Netta's boyfriend tells him why. It's a quietly momentous exchange. One crisis involves a last mission required of Ravid, which he refuses. The man who goes is killed.
One of the literary jokes in this novel hinges on Ravid's being bored by the popular British espionage author John Le Carre. Perhaps Le Carrs Smiley and his other less than perfect spies would show Ravid something about himself that he does not want to know. But there are differences between Oz's and Le Carrs treatments of the generic spy. Unlike a Le Carre novel, this story depends not on suspense but on transparency and concentration; one re-reads Oz. We forget a novel by Le Carre, we consume it; but w
e have to live with "To Know a Woman" in order to read it. Mozartean in its lucidity and profound good humor, "To Know a Woman" keeps its secrets. Yet, with each rereading, one sees more deeply into this still pool called Yoel Ravid. Some part of each of us would rather polish the doorknob than face the warped image looking back at us. A retired Israeli agent becomes a mirror for the reader. It's as if Amos Oz, the epitome of the politicized Israeli author, wanted this novel to embody a peace deeper than t h
at offered by politics and joys beyond security.