Novels come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s always a delight to discover an unusual way of telling a story, one that shows us what’s possible beyond our usual expectations of plot and character, beginning, middle and end. The Same Sea by Israeli writer Amos Oz is a novel written in both verse (blank, but occasionally rhyming) and prose-poetry. It’s haunting, beautifully told and laid out in such a way that the blank space on the page opens us to the meditative silence that is so much a part of this reflective tale. This novel was such a pleasure to read that I felt I couldn’t do it justice unless I read it a second time. Having done that, I’d be more than happy to read it again, both for its depth of insight and for the sheer beauty of its resonant language.
The story’s narrated by several characters: Albert, an accountant; his wife Nadia (who at the time of the story, has died of cancer); their son Rico who’s left home to find himself in Tibet; his flirtatious girlfriend Dita, who comes to stay with his father, a lonely man infatuated with her; Albert’s widowed colleague Bettine who offers him companionship and dislikes these goings-on with Dita. It’s the kind of situation that in lesser hands might have been predictable: a love-triangle, a few messed-up kids, a father-son conflict, a busybody neighbour. Yet this story aims much higher.
Because the novel’s driven by language, words resonate with metaphors that enlarge the story beyond its immediate concerns. Much of its poetry echoes the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. Love is longed for and remembered in the language of the Song of Songs (in one striking example, the dead Nadia puts a new twist on Solomon’s poem); the Narrator ponders the meaning of his work with words that recall Ecclesiastes and the psalms. The very presence of a Narrator whose characters dispute his storytelling contains an echo of the Judaic God — a dialogue-partner who signed off on a covenant with the Chosen People, one who can be confronted by his creatures for breaking it. Likewise, the text does riffs on the Beatitudes and the Magnificat in the New Testament with both devastating and spectacular results.
Don’t worry — even if these references go whizzing by, you’ll still enjoy this beautiful work which reflects at multiple levels on love, family, sexuality, politics and the frailty of human life. “It turns out that something that never was and never will be is all that we have,” says Bettine to the Narrator. Perhaps she’s referring both to his fictional creations (including herself) and to our illusions. This poignant insight doesn’t slow her down. “Just sit down and get on with your writing,” she tells the scribe, as if both she and the author know that in the beauty and truthfulness of language, there is hope and peace for the spirit.
The Same Sea by Amos Oz is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, in collaboration with the author. It was published in New York in 2001 by Harcourt Books.