Analysis of Amos Oz’s Black Box

Written by Israeli writer Amos Oz (1939–2018), Black Box appeared in Hebrew under the title Kufsah Shehorah in 1987. The novel immediately climbed to the top of the best-seller lists in Israel, breaking previously recorded book sales. It was translated by Nicholas de Lange and published in English a year later. In 1988 Black Box won Amos Oz the Prix Femina Etranger, France’s top literary award for the best foreign novel of that year. The novel was made into a film by Ye’ud Levanon in 1994.

Amos Oz

Amos Oz, pictured in 1989. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Independent/Rex/Shutterstock

In Black Box, Oz focuses on the subject of family life as a means of examining the nation. Taking its name from the cockpit recorder found among the wreckage after a plane crash, the epistolary novel gives an account of the failed marriage of its central protagonists, Alexander Gideon and Ilana Sommo, seven years after a bitter divorce. The novel is set in 1976 and moves between London, Chicago, and Jerusalem. The story begins with a letter from Ilano Sommo to her estranged ex-husband Alexander Gideon, a former Israeli tank commander turned intellectual now living in Chicago. He has recently written a book on fanaticism that has confirmed his status as a scholar. Ostensibly at his mercy, Ilana asks Alex for financial assistance to help their wayward son Boaz, who at 16 years of age is drifting aimlessly through life, getting into trouble with the police. Before ending the letter, Ilana offers to do anything for Alex if he will share his substantial inheritance with her. Alex replies to her, his attorney Manfred Zakheim, and Ilana’s current husband Michel Sommo, a Moroccan Jew who uses the money that Alex sends through Zakheim not only to help Boaz but also to invest in dubious right-wing Zionist enterprises.

Reflecting Oz’s belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Black Box thematically suggests that truth and reconciliation do not necessarily result in happiness or forgiveness, but perhaps a truce. Ilana and Alex’s initial letters initiate a web of correspondence among Alex, Ilana, Michel, Zakheim, Boaz, and Ilana’s sister Rahel, who warns Ilana not to resume relations with Alex Gideon. The correspondents hurl anger, abuse, complaint, reproach, love, and longing at each other in the letters, and in the process Ilana and Alex reconcile. She convinces the dying man to return to Jerusalem, to the childhood home that Boaz has inhabited and transformed into a commune, and she leaves Michel Sommo to take care of Alex in his final days. Boaz carries his father in his arms throughout the run-down castle, and Ilana takes care of Alex as if he were an infant. Meanwhile, Michel Sommo and his family ritualistically mourn the end of his marriage to Ilana, as if she had died.

In an interesting twist on the love triangle, Alex offers to bequeath Michel Sommo half his inheritance if the offended husband would permit his wife and young daughter to remain with the dying man until he expires. Michel Sommo refuses, claims his daughter from Ilana, and begins divorce proceedings. Ilana writes back after eight months have passed, requesting forgiveness and asking Michel to join her at the commune so that she, Alex, and Michel might live together as a family. She signs the letter “Mother.” Michel Sommo pens the final letter, a self-righteous translation of Psalm 103 in which he offers forgiveness, based on a belief that his wronged innocence has been vindicated through Alexander Gideon’s richly deserved suffering.

Perhaps due to its setting shortly after the Yom Kippur War and Alexander Gideon’s characterization as a former tank commander, Black Box has been read as an allegory for the Zionist enterprise. In a review of the novel, Elizabeth Pochoda quotes Oz as having said that Zionism exacted a toll on women, and she goes on to state that Ilana’s obsessions with both Alexander Gideon and Michel Sommo represent the “malaise” at the heart of Zionism—idealism and cruelty. Ilana’s marriage to the arrogant and mercenary religious fanatic Michel represents blind trust in a vision of perfection, and her absolute devotion to the violent and abusive Alexander reflects a desire to be dominated. Torn between the world-weary despair of the old Ashkenazi elite represented in Alexander Gideon and the shrewd aspirations of recent immigrants such as Michel Sommo who have more in common with the Arabs of North Africa than the eastern European Ashkenazim, Ilana spends much of her time running between the two, searching for happiness. This servitude in women under Zionism far exceeds gender inequality, according to Pochoda. But, more important, she finds that as allegories of the state of Israel, Black Box and other works by Oz chronicle the suffocation and boredom of people forced to live in proximity with each other, everyone relinquishing something and no one owning the truth—“exactly what the Jews had for almost two millennia.” And this irony, she concludes, accounts for the tragicomic nature of the novel.

Black Box does not end happily, yet it is perhaps the most lighthearted of Oz’s novels, namely because the characters are so desperately flawed. Ilana’s obsessions, Michel’s fanaticism, Boaz’s illiteracy and stupidity, Zakheim’s exploitation of Alex as well as his devotion, and Alex’s dark humor make their intertwining story utterly convincing—in the tradition of great literary realism, such as works by Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov.

Literature On The Holocaust

Balaban, Abraham. Between God and Beast: An Examination of Amos Oz’s Prose. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Mazor, Yair. Somber Lust: The Art of Amos Oz. Translated by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Categories: Israeli Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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