‘My brevity is about being breathless’

‘My brevity is about being breathless’

Daniel Oz’s ‘flash fables’ are very short but packed with disruptions and restlessness

Daniel Oz Photo by Neta Shlezinger
Daniel Oz Photo by Neta Shlezinger

Daniel Oz writes very short stories that he calls “flash fables” — they are poetic, provocative, sometimes puzzling tales that take the reader to unexpected places in bursts of literary energy.

“Further Up The Path,” a collection of more than 80 of these stories translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (BOA Editions), is Oz’s first book published in the U.S. The book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father, the acclaimed writer Amos Oz, who died almost a year ago.

During a visit to New York City from his home in Tel Aviv, Oz, the author of three collections of Hebrew poetry, tells NJJN that he first began writing in this format after a poem he had begun writing wasn’t working. It was more like a story but wasn’t a story, and ended up a very short piece, “The Cat’s Dream,” which is the first “flash fable” in this collection.

“I looked at it and I said, ‘I have no idea what this is, but maybe it’s a form that would help me express ideas that I may have pent up, and couldn’t get into a more lyrical style of writing.’ So I just continued,” he says.

Each fable takes up less than a page, so there is a lot of white space. That layout can be deceptive: Other books showcasing lots of white space and small selections on each page offer works that are either aphoristic or Zen-like meditations projecting a certain calm. Oz’s stories are more disruptive.

“There are few words that can express the overwhelming absurdity of our condition. There’s no peace about it; it’s not a relaxed state of being. My brevity is about being in motion and being breathless,” he says.

Sometimes a lot can happen in his succinct lines. Rare animals and plants inhabit many fables, but so do a reception clerk at the Bureau of Housing, a watchmaker, and a hatter “who was not the hatter at all.” A patient is given a spoon with holes for his medicine; a mayor cutting celebratory ribbons finds more ribbons under each one that he cuts. In a village where the single tree that grows bears a bitter leaf, the townspeople are sustained by it, even as they are only ones to find it flavorful and can’t trade it elsewhere.

The titles sound straightforward — “The Twins,” “Silence is Golden,” “The Minister’s Driver,” “The Reader,” “Cloudburst” — but the shape of the tales is neither linear or circular, but more like a spiral or looping figure. The reader can tease out multiple meanings or simply enjoy the uncommon flow of Oz’s imagery. There are no moral lessons here, as in many classic fables; these can be dark stories, not for children. Oz looks at them not as riddles that have answers but as open questions.

Some, like “The Countess’s Table,” read like a brief folk tale, with a countess commissioning three carvers each year to adorn her massive chestnut table. She awards a lavish prize to one of them, until one winner simply coats the table with clear varnish, and the following year the prize is given to the three porters who haul it away.

“I always feel like a writer is a sort of tour guide, because you take the reader out on a sightseeing tour and show them sights that are there. But it’s not just me giving a lecture. It’s more like traveling together,” he explains.

He likes the idea that people might open the volume and find a story at random they might connect with, and then find another, and “it’s a kind of chance meeting, which connects with the sense I had throughout the writing of this manuscript, which is the idea of being in motion. This vagabond experience seeped into themes of the text.”

The title is drawn from the name of one of the fables. The title of the Hebrew edition, which translates as “Why You Shall Not See Me On The Road,” is the title of another. Both express the sense of motion — not headed in a particular direction — and restlessness, that Oz describes.

“Further Up The Path” is published in an appealing and all-too-rare bilingual edition, featuring facing pages of English and Hebrew. The translator, Jessica Cohen, shared the 2017 Man Booker Prize with David Grossman for her translation of his novel, “A Horse Walks Into A Bar.”

In the noisy café where we are seated, Oz reads a fable out loud called “Five Minutes,” in both languages; his delivery is gently confident and distinguished.

“I tried to find a level of Hebrew that would be timeless,” he says. “Not of our time, but not historically placeable.” In a fable, he explains, the reader doesn’t know the author or era.

“I like the universality of the form. Sometimes I feel a trend these days is that we have to be transparent about our background, identity politics, and politics in general. Biography has become so central,” he says. For him, the truth seems more existential than sociological markers. He continues, “Personal identity is something more chaotic, more individual and more universal at the same time. It’s not always about the group you belong to.”

In all of his writing, he tries to find ways to circumvent the demand of identifying himself, which to him seems superficial. He’s more interested in going deeper, speaking to the human experience.

“These flash fables are more about the reader than about me. I like it to be that way,” he says.

While he doesn’t want to talk about identity, I can’t resist asking about his sense of Judaism, and, as always, he’s thoughtful, leading back to the book. “The fables are very universal, but it’s easy to see how the things I’m saying about being on the road can be viewed as the Jewish experience. What can you say? Kafka was the most universal, existential writer and he is very often pegged as a Jewish writer, for being so cosmopolitan and universal. It’s inseparable in some ways, and I don’t mind.”

Oz doesn’t lead with his literary pedigree, but speaks of his late father as his teacher when he was starting out as a writer. “He gave me quite a lot of guidance, long ago, even though we are very different artistically. With our very different interests and styles, there’s something in common,” he says.

They were close, and he says, “Everything now is tinged with sadness.”

Oz grew up in Arad in southern Israel, although the family traveled a lot. As to whether the landscape influenced his writing, he says, “Probably. When you live in the desert, a lot is left to the imagination.”

Oz also co-runs a small publishing house, and he is an award-winning composer of instrumental jazz.

He says that while the ideas of this book are universal and timeless, “of course it’s political. Political questions are universal and timeless. If you read it with political glasses on, you may draw political conclusions.”

Asked about his own politics and activism, he says that he is beginning to find politics overwhelming, that he used to be more of a peace activist and organizer. But he does agree with the outlook his father cited in his story of the “Order of the Teaspoon.” Amos Oz explained that there are always three options if a person is watching a fire, whether to run away and let those who cannot run away burn, write an angry letter to a newspaper, or take action. Elaborating on the third option, he wrote, “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon.”

Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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