Documenting a contest of wills and wiles in modern Israel

Black Box, by Amos Oz. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. 259 pp. $19.95. Like the black box containing flight data which is sought after a plane crash to help reconstruct what went wrong, this novel provides documentary evidence - letters and telegrams exchanged by its principal characters - of another kind of man-made disaster. For, notwithstanding its jet-age title and modern Israeli setting, this is a classic epistolary novel, the very form favored by such early novelists as Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, who brought the form to a chilling perfection in ``Les Liaisons dangereuses'' (1782). Like most epistolary novels - and perhaps most novels - it tells a complex story of love and betrayal, passion and manipulation, rash acts and rationalizations.

From this ``black box'' we learn how a marriage went wrong, why a son grew up wild, why a family was destroyed. We also learn how relationships are ended, how a wild boy becomes a rather admirable young man, and how a reconciliation rises from the ashes of discord.

The novel opens in February 1976 and concludes in October of that same year, although the letters summon up a past that spans three generations. From Jerusalem, Ilana Sommo writes to her ex-husband Alexander Gideon, breaking a seven-year silence, because she is concerned about their son, Boaz, a once-lovable boy who has mushroomed into a boorish, illiterate giant constantly in trouble with the law. Ilana's current husband, Michel, an orthodox Jew from Morocco by way of Paris, has been of some help, but Ilana suspects the problem is too big to handle. A fiery, emotionally expressive woman, she still carries a torch for ``icy'' Alex, and is eager to assure him that - despite the stream of adulteries for which Alex divorced her - Boaz is really his son.

A hero of the Six-Day War, Alex now lives in America and England, a peripatetic professor famous for his writings on the subject of fanaticism. He has charge of a considerable fortune originally made by his father, a Tolstoyesque Russian who emigrated to Palestine in the early days. Alex's immediate reaction to Ilana's letter is to send large sums of money, through his lawyer Zakheim, to be used by the Sommos on Boaz's behalf.

The plot thickens as Alex, Ilana, Michel, Boaz, and Zakheim write up a storm of letters and telegrams. Michel writes reproachful letters to Boaz, urging him toward the straight and narrow path of Orthodox Jewish morality. Boaz is surprisingly grateful for the advice. Ilana acts out the role of irresistible force to Alex's immovable object, practically throwing herself at him. Michel tries to get Alex to contribute to right-wing religious causes dedicated to buying out Arabs in the occupied territories, even though (or perhaps because) he knows that Alex has been a spokesman on behalf of Arab rights.

While Michel and Alex compete for the hearts and minds of Ilana and Boaz, Zakheim tries to protect Alex from his own liberality and Boaz fires off ingenuous, misspelled, yet increasingly sensible missives. Soon he is defending his homespun live-and-let-live philosophy against Michel's more rigid distinctions between right and wrong. The contest of wills - and wiles - develops into an extended debate about how to live, what to do. Alex begins to see some of Michel's good qualities; Michel shows himself to be somewhat more flexible than he seemed; and Boaz founds a commune close in spirit to the ideals of the original Zionist kibbutzim, but more loosely structured: a kind of modern version of Rabelais's Abbey of Th'el`eme.

Born in Jerusalem, a veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, Amos Oz lived on a kibbutz for many years, contributing the proceeds of his writing to the commune that gave him the economic base - and some good material - for his stories and novels. He has been a prominent advocate of Israeli-Arab reconciliation. In a recent interview, he warned against the temptation to read ``Black Box'' as an allegory about the current state of Israel.

It's easy to see how this temptation would arise. The characters seem to embody distinct factions of Israeli society: Alex, the sabra, or native-born Israeli, pragmatic, skeptical, Western; Michel, the immigrant and Likud supporter, convinced of his own righteousness, still smarting from insults as a Jew under Arab rule, rebuffed again by fellow Jews who treated him as a second-class citizen in the Promised Land; and Boaz, the future, unformed and unpredictable.

Indeed, it's hard not to find political portents in their personal conflicts. The temptation, of course, is to lose sight of individuals, viewing them as mere representatives of larger trends. Oz cautions against this, because it makes caricatures of characters and blurs the subtleties of his vision. Not for nothing does this novel contain Alex Gidon's speculations on fanatics as people who've lost the ability to pursue private lives and chosen to submerge their individual identities in a cause. In ``Black Box'' all the characters carry the seeds of potential fanaticism. Yet they also show the potential to overcome one-dimensionality and single-mindedness so as to emerge not only as fully rounded fictional characters but also as multifaceted, distinctly individual human beings.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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