Novelist Oz Portrays A Representative Man

A VETERAN of Israel's 1967 and 1973 wars and a prominent advocate for peace, Amos Oz is also one of Israel's best-known novelists, an intelligent and venturesome writer with a gift for illuminating the complex interweavings of the personal and the political in his characters' lives.

The hero of his latest novel is Efraim Nisan, known to his friends as ``Fima.'' He is a shambling, woozy, bear-like man who has a hard time finding his socks, doing the dishes, and figuring out how to turn his flashes of inspiration into the eloquent, persuasive articles that he hopes will make an irrefutable case for peace between Arabs and Israelis.

Fima's life, as he looks back on it, reads like a litany of disappointments and missed opportunities. A brilliant student of history, a promising poet, a charismatic young man expected to make his mark on the world, this hero manque lost his bearings in his 20s and never quite managed to get back on track.

His friends and one-time peers have overtaken him. His former classmate Kropotkin, always less gifted than Fima, has gone on to enjoy the academic success Fima might have known had he persisted in his history studies. Fima's wife, Yael, who once adored him, has left him for another man. She and her new husband, Ted, are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in the field of jet propulsion. They also have a clever, eccentric, serious little son, whom Fima fondly wishes were his own.

Unable to support himself by his occasional journalism, supplemented by money he wishes his father wouldn't give him, Fima works as a part-time receptionist at a gynecological practice. Here, he ponders the wrongs done by man unto woman and finds an occasional date.

Even Fima's father, an immigrant from Eastern Europe with a penchant for retelling Yiddish stories, seems more of a mensch (a mature, responsible human being) than Fima feels himself to be.

Fima's friends regard him with a mixture of admiration, exasperation, and pity. They recognize the power and originality of his intellect, but consider him something of an overgrown child. He turns up on their doorsteps, at all hours, to argue his latest ideas or take comfort in the arms of sympathetic women.

Wandering the streets of his native Jerusalem, Fima wonders what, if anything, future generations will think of him and his contemporaries and the troubled times they're living through.

In dreams, he imagines himself heading a bold new government determined to cede the occupied territories and establish peace. Awake, he doubts his dreams and questions his antipathy toward his right-wing compatriots: Is his father right to accuse him of being more sympathetic to the Arabs than to his fellow Jews? Will he and his generation be blamed for failing to break the cycle of violence and retribution? Or will history condemn them for lacking the will to prevail over their enemies? Yet what shall it profit a nation to preserve its borders and lose its soul?

Well-intentioned, self-doubting, bemused, yet ever hopeful, Fima may be viewed as a human symbol of Zionist idealism in recoil from the harsh realities of contemporary Israeli society. But if Fima is a ``representative man,'' he is also an individual man: a quirky, engaging, believable loner who, like so many modern antiheroes, feels as out of place in his society as he seems representative of it. Oz's fine sense of balance enables the reader to see both aspects at once. ``Fima'' is a seamless creation.

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