In Rhyming Life and Death, the latest novel by Israeli author Amos Oz, an unnamed author walks the streets of Tel Aviv, killing time before he’s due to appear at a talk on his work in a nearby cultural centre. He dreads the coming series of questions—Why do you write? What do you think of other writers? Do you write with a pen or a computer?—all of which he’s heard before, and all of which he will answer tonight just as evasively, as vaguely, as he always has done. Sitting in a cafe, he attempts to distract himself from the upcoming event by creating a back story for the waitress who serves him. Her name is Ricky, he decides, and he goes on to imagine the story of her first love affair.Sitting on stage, listening to a professional reader, Rochele, reading from his work and an expert discussing it, he begins to examine the audience, ascribing a characteristic here, a back story there, some poignant incident or strange living circumstance. “It is as though he were picking their pockets while the audience is immersed in the byways of his writing with the literary expert as their guide.”
To one side, in one of the back rows, sits a boy—no, it’s a man: gaunt, slightly shrivelled, he looks like a monkey that has lost most of its fur and just has some tufts left on its sunken cheeks, a shabby man in his sixties, with a thinning crest of hair like an anaemic cockscomb. He could be, let’s say, a low-ranking activist who has been thrown out of the section office because he was caught passing confidential papers to an agent from another party, since when he has eked out a living by giving private maths lessons.
The concept of the daydreaming author breathing fictional life into random encounters is nothing new—there’s a nice scene along these lines in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Wonder Boys, for example—but from here things unravel a little more. When the event has concluded, with its usual round of predictable questions and evasive answers, the Author walks Rochele home to her apartment, outside which he makes a half-hearted attempt to seduce her. Then he leaves, and comes back… only he doesn’t; he’s walking the streets again, these events of his own life taking place in that same imaginative space where he had previously been colouring in the lives of others.
It’s hard to describe Rhyming Life and Death without making it sound hackneyed, which is a shame because in fact this brief novella (around 150 pages) is a wonderful and often very witty evocation of a night in the inner life of its protagonist. It throws up questions without answering them, of course, but that’s what it means to do: we’ve been warned all along that the answers are evasive, that the core issues are always avoided.