When she was a girl of five, she emigrated from Poland to Israel with her parents and sister. She was too embarrassed to tell her husband about her miserable childhood both in Israel and Poland.
Her father, who used to be a teacher, had to switch his job and become a plasterer in a large construction company.
When she was twelve years old, her father got killed while falling from high scaffolding. Her mom passed away a year later.
Her sister Rachel was raised in a kibbutz-Bet Abraham and stayed to live there. Ilana was raised in an institution of the working women council. During her military service, she had met Alex Gideon who was her commander. His cruel patronizing, the contempt he felt for others and his alienation didn’t scare her away but posed a challenge for her. She realized it was a mask and underneath the cruelty and the toughness there was a lonely man. Despite Alex’s stern behavior that had alienated people around him, Ilana was madly attracted to him and she actually liked “the dragon in him”.
Alex never meant to have a family of his own Ilana caused him to have one. He had intended to complete his doctorate and do research on philosophical and historical issues.
Ilana remembers the first two years of their life together (before she became unfaithful) and how Alex and Boaz used to sit together on Saturdays quietly gluing pictures and doing all kinds of other things.
Their strong desire turned into hatred and mutual cruelty and had led to a chain of betrayals. Ilana cheated on him with his friends, his commanders, his students, and others. When he had banished her, he determined the fate of the two of them just like in Alterman’s poem: “…the sadness of my balding head and the grief of my large nails, you shall hear in the explosion of the plaster and in the creaking of the floor at night.”
Alex, like a living dead, still haunts his old lover and she still yearns for him.
Ilana attempts to rebuild her life with the religious Michael Somo who is like a father, a brother and a child to her (whereas Alex had always been her husband and master). With Michael, she tries to forget her longing to her husband which often overtakes her. The spell they had cast on each other permeates into her life with Somo and her new family is shattered.
In her letters to Alex, Ilana examines their different perception of happiness and marriage. Alex claims that happiness is a worn out Christian invention and that it is “kitsch”. Ilana believes that happiness does exist and that hardship isn’t its opposite but rather a narrow tunnel through which we may pass in order to experience happiness. (page 108)
She illustrates happiness as a fine, rare Chinese vase that was finely carved by those few who obtained it. In her opinion, Alex hadn’t truly loved her but conquered her as an object. A metaphor that can describe their relationship is that of the gene and the bottle- they can’t get out of the other.
Why does she write to him about the past? to arouse longing? to hurt both of them all over again? to decipher a black box? To capture him in her net? All the answers are correct, (149) she claims and continues to write because she wants to speak to him. For seven years she has coped with her longing and desire for him but then she gave in. She feels she is addicted to him just like a servant. Towards the end, she claims she has no wish for revenge and that she just wants to be with him and lay her fingers on the back of his neck and indeed in his last days Ilana takes care of him just like a nurse.
Ilana, just like a tragic heroine destroyed with her own hands her new life with Michael. The redemption she has been waiting for is an illusion and she already visualizes how she would move to a different city and find herself a temporary love. She is a tragic heroine who can’t control her self destruction which causes her to destroy her new life with Michael.
Ilana is a romantic, desirous woman who leads both her husbands into her bed. She fascinates them with her childish beauty and romantic womanhood.
In the end, Ilana and Alex reunite. A unification beyond words and love.
Alec grew up without a mother. He lived in tremendous solitude without a mother, a brother or a friend. His only friends were characters from the many books he had read. His loneliness persisted even in school. He used to shut himself from the world. He was a bitter, arrogant child with no social skills.
His father- was a domineering person, a dictator a strange, alienated person who brought different women into the house, whose laughter burst into Alex’s solitude. Slowly, he had built himself a castle in which he lived and protected himself from the world.
As a child he already acted as an emperor in his game: “the full bear” with Zakhaim the lawyer and had no sense of sportsmanship. Just like he would bite his own hand when lost and would go wild breaking things he would later act cruelly towards Ilana and when their love turned into hatred, he would beat her up, bite her in the shoulder and smash his son’s head against the wall. Even in his last days, he would stamp his feet and complain that Ilana was cheating, while playing cards.
The reserved and arrogant boy grew up into a strict military man who likes order in his life. The subject which he would focus on in the future was the psychology of the ideological fanaticism. That was part of the journey he went on, in the hope of resolving the black box of his life.
One of his beliefs was that there’s a mutual dependency between the torturer and his victim and that when circumstances change, they also can trade places. Indeed their relationship was of that nature.
In Ilana’s eyes Alex’s strength came from his check book. He had never done anything on his own, even when proposing to her, he needed his father. He was never able to bring joy to anyone and except his wickedness; he had no other joys in his life. She calls him a lonely, evil dragon.
He sees compassion and love as weaknesses and being soft as something to be ashamed of. He never wanted to get married because emotions put pressure on him. He also didn’t see himself fit for fatherhood and that’s why he wouldn’t accept his son Boaz.
In her eyes, he was exiled to the snowy wilderness where he lived his life in Arctic coldness.
With his money, he tried to gain power. He drowned Michael and Ilana with his money, however, he lived on his own. Women, money and glory bored him and his haterd faded away.
In the family estate in Zichron, the family reunites. Over there, their masochistic connection loosens, something in him softens (he even acknowledges his fatherhood).Just like losing his hair due to his illness he is letting his hatred go. He lets Ilana take care of him, doesn’t say much, however, compliments her for her dress something he had never done before. In his last days, he teaches his son spelling; folds empty bags and sorts out different kinds of seeds.
Just before his death, he goes to the old room of his mother, hangs what is left of her sandals and puts a picture of her on his desk and through these acts he connects with his soft side and his childhood.
In his letter to Michael, he admits that he always looked down at people, now there’s hesitation and listening in him when interacting with others.
The estate is his childhood heaven and the lost heaven of their marriage but this drama can only find its solution in Alec’s death.
The violent fanaticism – mother of all sins/ “The desperate violence”- The book of Alex Gideon
Alexander Gideon one of the main characters in the novel, publishes abroad (a year before the story begins) his monumental book “The desperate violence- research in comparison fanaticism”. The book arouses international interest and enthusiastic reviews are published in the most important newspapers in the world. From the book, one can learn about the intellectual world of the author and topics which bother him (pages 69-70):
World correctors sold their soul to the Satan of fanaticism. Therefore, the secret wish of every fanatic is to die as a martyr on the altar of his own ideas, and that allows him to sacrifice the lives of others. In the soul of a fanatic violence, redemption and death are one.
Fanaticism is expressed in Messianic flame, both in his religious and secular garments.
The violent fanaticism exposes its true face in Capitalism, Feudalism and also in the church, in Fascism, in Nationalism, Zionism, racism, militarism and the extreme right wing.
Later, Alex writes his philosophical definitions on index cards for his next article or book (pages 115-117).
● The major experience of time is two dimensional: the past and the present. The present is impure, it’s a nightmare and therefore, one has to release himself from the nails of the present and totally destroy it.
● The past heaven is our future heaven and in order to bring the two of them closer, one must erase the gloomy present from both reality and memory.
● When the mean present is cancelled in favor of a bright future, the struggle would be over and an eternal era of peace and happiness would appear.
● The more a person’s own belief is destroyed, the stronger his belief in redemption. The smaller you are, the greater your redeemer is. *When a man loses his self respect and the reason for his living, the justification of his religion, nationality and race are sanctified.
● The different kinds of uniform were born in order to promote total absorption of the “I” in the” We”. It’s a process through which one is taken in by his race, movement and nation to the point where he completely forgets himself.
● Out of the fear of emptiness in one’s life, one would turn to dealing with other people lives: straighten them and torture them
● The idealist spends his life destroying strangers, rivals and the enemies of revolution. He lives in modesty, uninterested in luxuries frequently using the words: redemption and salvation.
The ideology of the violent fanaticism is a major topic in Professor Gideon’s researches and it also acts as a background and a motive to the behavior of the main characters in the novel. Through this Amos Oz is trying to understand and criticize the essential process in the Jewish society in Israel in the past few decades.
Alex Gideon and Michelle Somo- The saviors of the people of Israel
Despite the essential differences between the two husbands of Ilana, both Gideon and Michael are moved by the same ideology of fanaticism and violence. Both of them see themselves as the saviors of Israel and both wish to correct the twisted history of the Jewish society, one in his religious outfit and the other in his secular one and both in different ways work towards the redemption of the people. The difference between the two is in the lesson learning and its application. Gideon who is ten years older than Michael draws first the conclusions from the powerful Zionist situation. He leaves the country and in his solitude he shuts himself from the world in the university in order to understand his own deeds and the deeds of his generation. Michael hasn’t gotten to that level.
The names of the husbands imply the motive of redemption in their characters and their behaviors. Alex changed his Russian last name from “Godonsky” to the biblical “Gideon” who was chosen by God to redeem the people of Israel from the hands of Midyan. Michelle the nickname of Michael-“who is like God”, was the secondary to Gabriel who had appeared in Daniel’s vision- the defender of the people of Israel. Both of them were absorbed by the “us”. They lost their self respect as human beings, the justification to their personal existence and sanctified themselves to the establishment of the nation.
Alex Gideon dedicated his life to the military force of the Zionist ideal. He spent his life commanding tanks and killing Arabs- the nation’s enemy. He participated in Israel’s wars and was even injured in his back in a heroic operation in the north of the Kinneret. In the 50’s, at the age of 28 when he was a commander in the armored force, a virgin and an ascetic, he fell for Ilana- the company’s officer. He had a wild erotic affair with her and then married her. A day after their marriage, he left his young sexy wife alone and went back to his tanks in the desert. And so out of arrogance and haughtiness, he acts in the same way and turns to his academic studies and writes his thesis, detaching himself from Ilana and her baby.
He was born in Algeria and from there moved to France. Studied literature in the Sorbon but never graduated. At the end of the 60’s, he moved to Israel as an enthusiastic Zionist. He tried several jobs but couldn’t keep them. In 1964 he started working as a French teacher in an all boys religious school named: “Ohel Yitzhak”.He was exempted from the army service
Somo is a religious nationalist who believes that Israel’s lands ought to be redeemed for the sake of the Jewish people. He is the complete opposite of Alex the “ashcenazi”, the son of an aristocrat family, a professor and a commander in the armored force.
Despite the significant differences between the two husbands of Ilana, both are motivated by the same ideology of fanatics and violence: one in his secular suit and the other in his religious garments.
The two of them have absorbed their “I” in the “we”. Alex dedicated his life to the military forces of the Zionist ideal by serving the army for many years. Michael tries to redeem the people of Israel not by using militant forces but by using peaceful means such as: purchasing lands and evicting the Arabs.
The difference between the two is in the lesson learning. Gideon draws conclusions from the aggressive Zionist situation and leaves the country. Michael, however, still hasn’t learned his lesson.
His relationship with Ilana
After the separation from Gideon, Michelle treats both of them with much tenderness, love and understanding. However, when he gets deeply involved in national activity, his love fades away. He dedicates himself to the redemption of the lands for Jewish settlements.
When Ilana goes to the estate to be with Gideon, hatred breaks out and Michelle runs a cruel personal and national account against Alex. He accuses him of stealing his daughter and tempting his wife and also of a scornful attitude towards the “mizrachim”. They – the”ashcenazim”- the best of the crop, rule the country with their admirable, handsome priests, whereas the “mizrachim” are only dust under their feet, step-sons. Their only purpose is to serve those who built the state and get used to their customs.
He regrets marrying Ilana the “ashcenazi “, daring to marry someone outside his congregation.
When he finds out about Gideon’s promise to leave half of his inheritance to him, he regrets his dark rage and persuades Gideon to come to Jerusalem to be cured by the mercy of God.
In his last letter he illustrates himself as a kind merciful God but it seems that underneath it there’s a radical, Jewish fanatic.
Boaz, the son of Ilana and Alex, a boy of sixteen, is the reason for reopening the drama and the one who leads to their reconciliation, before Alex dies.
As a child he had witnessed the violent attacks of his father. This turned him into a weird, rebellious, violent kid. He is paying the price of parents who get divorced and of a shattered family without any love or warmth.
Somo, his step- father wants to care for him and give him a religious, Zionist education. However, Boaz’s Zionizm is different from Somo’s. He doesn’t miss the glorious Israel of the past like Somo- the religious fanatic.
His Zionism is illustrateded through his connection to the land. He is a man of the present, who builds the neglected estate in Zichron with his own hands. The estate is a symbol of the beginning of the “practical” Zionism. He is against immigration from Israel and demands that everyone does something for their country instead of arguing, killing and dying all the time.
He doesn’t hate the Arabs. He thinks they should be left to lead their own lives. He believes that a man shouldn’t interfere in other people worlds- live and let live. He also thinks that if the political perception in Israel doesn’t change, then Zionism will end.
Unlike his father who ran away from the land and the country, he goes back to the land to correct mistakes made by people before him. He turns from a bully into a soft peaceful person.
In renovating the estate, he demonstrates authority in his silences. He works the land diligently, creates a vegetable garden, and walks around naked and bare foot just like Tarzan king of the jungle. He demonstrates simplicity and tries to experience the present completely. He symbolizes the “sabre”, illustrating the transition from violence and suffering to peace and happiness. Will he hold his land? Ilana assumes that eventually he would have to desert the estate due to forces stronger than him.