05. 11. 2010. 09:41

The conflict between right and right

An interview with Amos Oz

"Curiosity in my view is a moral virtue, a curious person is a better person than those who are not curious." – Dóra Szekeres talked to Amos Oz, the Guest of Honour of this year's Budapest Book Festival.

You mentioned at the open stage discussion that the role of literature in Anglo-Saxon countries is determined by the need to entertain, whereas in Eastern European countries and in Israel the focus is on giving some kind of moral guidance to readers.

I strongly believe that there is a difference between Anglo-Saxon literature on the one hand and Eastern European and Israeli literature on the other. The readers' expectations are different. It is not the primary function of literature to educate but it can be useful sometimes. My job is to tell stories, not to educate the people, but one of the subjects which fascinates me the most is the subject of morality, moral dilemmas, especially conflicts between right and right, which is much more interesting for me than the conflict between right and wrong.

How can you separate your political and literary activity? You used to fight for peace not only with words, thoughts and literature, but with arms too.

I never made my literature an instrument of political struggle, in fact I draw a very strict line: when I want to write about political issues I write essays and articles, when I want to tell my goverment to go to hell I don't write a story but I write an article saying 'Dear government, please go to hell'. They read my articles but they don't go to hell for some reason... yet I keep writing the same article again and again. When I tell a story I do it out of curiosity, out of empathy, passion, humour and fascination with human nature.
You stated many times that you do not believe in pacifism, but rather in peacemaking where negotiation is important and the two parties don't have to accept each other inconditionally.

I can tell what I can do: I can speak and write. For more than forty years now I have been writing and talking about the need to reach a historical compromise between Israel and the Palestine. When I say compromise I don't mean capitulation, I don't mean to turn the other cheek to your enemy, but I mean to try to meet the enemy somewhere halfway and make a compromise. Compromises are never happy, there is no such thing. Compromise is when you only get some of what you wanted and the other party also only gets some of what they wanted and regarded as their right. But I believe this is the only way out of this conflict since this is a conflict between too different but right approaches. Our life is driven by compromises.

Let's talk about other conflicts. Decades ago you moved into a kibbutz in rebellion against your father who was an academic. You wanted to get rid of all the expectations which came from him and become a farmer, a tractor driver, but eventually you became a writer.

I realized very early in my life that like many other rebellions my rebellion against my father went half circle, not full circle but half. On politics I still differ from my father, he was right-wing, I am left-wing, he was a nationalist, I am a peace activist. So forty years after he died I still argue with him every day on politics, but now I sit in a room full of books and write, which is exactly the thing my father hoped for me to do. So I realized the irony of rebellions.

It was very interesting for me that the protagonist in your book Rhyming Life and Death is a very reserved and almost impolite writer who is in most cases quite disturbed by the boring questions of journalists. He doesn't like giving interviews and meeting his readers. But on the contrary you are a really informal author, anybody can come to you and ask about anything here at the book festival. Why did you depict the author like this in your book?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for not identifying me with the character in my book who is fully the product of my imagination, he is not a self-portrait. This writer is much more rigid and reserved than I am. I wanted to describe how his curiosity and power of imagination pushes him into inventing stories about everybody. He sits in a restaurant, orders an omelette and a coffee, looks at the waitress at the restaurant, and immediately he invents a life story for her. Then he goes to a  public meeting and while the professor is lecturing about his works he is looking at the audience and invents all sorts of things. He is full of curiosity and curiosity in my view is a moral virtue, a curious person is a better person than those who are not curious.

It is not exactly the way I write stories, it's the way I think, since each time I am among people who are strangers: at a railway station, an airport or in the waiting room of a clinic. I look at people and observe them, I look at their body language, their clothes, I overhear snatches of conversations between them and I imagine their lives. It's a wonderful pastime, I recommend it to everyone to try to imagine the other, because with the help of imagination we liberate ourselves from the prison of the self into a broader conception of human nature.

I have been writing for many years about families, mainly unhappy families, this is my main topic. If I had to answer in one word what all my works were about, I would say 'families', if I had two words, I would say 'unhappy families'. If you gave me three words you would have to read my works.

For some authors writing is a painful, tiring and unhappy thing that they still cannot resist, a drive which comes from the deepest parts of the soul. You said you wrote every day. Is there any time when it is awkward for you?

For me the need to write is like the need to dream. I do not have the choice to decide whether I dream or not. I dream every night and I write every day. The source of writing may be the same as the source of dreaming.

It is not the first time you've been to Hungary. Which Hungarian authors do you like reading?

I have read some of the Hungarian writers in Hebrew translation and in English, I have read Konrád, Esterházy, Spiró, Szabó and a few others. I find some similarities between Hungarian literature and Israeli Hebrew literature in the intellectual and political restlessness. They both need to research and understand the past in order to reinterpret and understand the present and the future. In my autobiographical novel The Tale of Love and Darkness I researched my European roots and traced the European origins of my family on both sides. But it is hard to define in a few words which are the main characteristics of these origins in my literature, if you want to find them out, you will have to read my books.

Dóra Szekeres

Tags: An interview with Amos Oz, Amos Oz