Oz's wistful novel about a schlemiel


Title: "Fima"

Author: Amos Oz; translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Length, price: 322 pages, $22.95

Efraim Nisan, or "Fima" for short, is the protagonist of Israeli author Amos Oz's funny, wistful and beautiful new novel. He is both a schlemiel and a schlimazel. He's the guy who spills his tea and the guy it lands on.

At age 54, a resident of Jerusalem, he's been divorced for more than 20 years, but he's hopeless at keeping house for himself. He resembles an aging adolescent whose promise is behind him rather than ahead of him. As a youth, he was a brilliant student and a blossoming poet, but he lacked an essential something -- )) ambition, confidence, self-interest, single-mindedness -- necessary to develop his potential.

Politics has become his waking passion and obsession. His favorite pastime is Friday evening dinners with a circle of friends, where he shines in the beloved Jewish sport of argument and debate. He's spirited and provocative -- as well as frequently tiresome -- in his commitment to the peace movement.

Fima's dreams are his other passion. Ordinarily forgetful and disorganized, he meticulously records them in a notebook each morning upon waking, and he continues to mull over their meaning.

In his personal life, he's as shamelessly needy as a child, with the annoying habit of dropping in unannounced on friends, a sometime lover, his ex-wife. They treat him with exasperated affection alternating with pure exasperation.

The novel begins in the dark hours before dawn on Monday, Feb. 12, 1989, and ends six days later, at the close of the Sabbath, on Saturday. Mr. Oz moves effortlessly between Fima's thoughts and actions during these cold Jerusalem days, where, after a long, dreary rain, the sun breaks brilliantly through.

It is this "nuptial veil of limpid light" that surprises Fima on the Friday morning before the Sabbath with a vision of "the heavenly Jerusalem." It inspires his private epiphany of the "Third State," which is a direct translation of the novel's original Hebrew title.

Through Fima, Mr. Oz lyrically describes this state: "He mused that there were times when the state of sleeping seemed less tainted with falsehood than the state of waking, and times when it was the other way around. . . . He now reached the thought that it might be a matter of three states . . . sleeping, waking, and . . . the light truly flowing out of the hills and out of himself too."

Mr. Oz relates Fima's vision with sympathy and dignity, but it is in Fima's encounters with others that the novel truly comes alive. Because Fima is both passive and demanding, much of the novel's drama consists of his relationships with important people in his life. They tolerate him even while they make him suffer their judgments of his behavior.

Most devastating of all are the comments of his ex-wife, Yael. "You don't love anything. Except maybe winning arguments," she accuses him after she gets fed up with his clumsy yet tenacious efforts to insinuate himself into her life with her second husband and their 10-year-old son. "Why do you keep coming back to mess me up, and everyone else too? . . . Is it my fault that you squandered everything you had, and everything you might have had?"

From Fima's Jerusalem, Mr. Oz creates a rich comic universe. Besides his friends and romantic attachments, his neighbors and casually met strangers, there are the doctors and staff at the gynecology office where he has worked as clerk and receptionist for many years. It's a job that elicits his reflections on "the separation of humankind into two sexes [which] struck him as an act of cruelty and an irreparable injustice."

In one of the novel's best scenes, he meets a woman at a cafe, a gynecological patient he has befriended. Her husband recently left her, and as Annette spills out the long story of her marriage and its disintegration, Fima makes the appropriate comments while his thoughts wander back and forth between an imagined argument with the right-wing young Jewish settler at an adjacent table and his strategy for seducing Annette.

Some of the novel's most bracing and memorable encounters occur between Fima and his 82-year-old father, Baruch Nomberg, a Russian immigrant who has prospered in Israel as a cosmetics manufacturer. He is an Old World patriarch whom Fima associates with "the scent of airless rooms, old furniture, steaming fish stew and boiled carrots, feather beds, and sticky liqueur."

In arguments with his son, Baruch speaks like a prophet: "The days go by with no purpose, no joy, and no profit. In fifty or a hundred years' time, there will doubtless be people in this room, of a generation of mighty heroes, and the question of whether you and I once lived here or not . . . will matter to them less than a grain of salt."

Baruch inspires Fima to his most trenchant eloquence, his denunciation of the Jewish yearning for a Messiah: "Make a note of this, Dad: Every time in history that the Jews have gone out of their minds and started navigating their way through this world with messianic charts instead of real, universal ones, millions of them have paid with their lives. Apparently we still haven't managed to get it into the famous Jewish head that the Messiah is really our exterminating angel."

The ending -- the Sabbath gathering and its aftermath -- is both surprising and anticipated. "Fima" is a wonderful novel, full of life and humor, spirit and reality. Recent political events -- the changing climate for peace in the Middle East -- tend to affirm its cautious optimism.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

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