“Oshralia,” by Eyal Megged, Miskal/Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 374 pages, 76 shekels
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Reading Eyal Megged’s excellent new novel, “Oshralia,” I was reminded of the Australian film “‘Crocodile’ Dundee II,” which is about the journey of a rough-hewn Aussie (a crocodile hunter by profession) to the Big Apple. The association isn’t only geographic (the southern continent occupies a place of honor in both the fine film and in Megged’s novel). It springs largely from the fact that both works deal with the same subject: masculinity – or, more precisely, the crisis of masculinity.
In the film, from 1988, the crisis involves men in America in the 1980s who seek the help of a crocodile hunter from Down Under to teach them about masculinity. (He accomplishes this by winning over Yankee women, and by fending off muggers who threaten him with a dagger but hightail it when he pulls out an enormous knife.) “Oshralia,” by contrast, is about an Israeli man named Hillel, a musician by profession, who travels to Australia to find anew the masculinity he’s lost.
Though I have great respect for “Crocodile’ Dundee,” the fact is that the work by Megged is far more complex and subtle. Shunning clichés, he tells a sensitive story involving the many facets of the crisis the protagonist is experiencing. Hillel feels that he is a failure in terms of his profession: In his late 50s, he can only acknowledge the fact that his career as a musician did not take off, whereas the career of his ex-wife, Alice, also a musician, is soaring. She, whom he loved since adolescence, left him for an Italian conductor who is both more successful and younger than he. With their daughter, Tzlil, Hillel maintains a connection as highly charged as it is distant.
Hillel’s difficulties are compounded by one more issue. After the draining divorce from Alice, he goes to Greece, where he meets Anat, a veterinarian, who becomes pregnant by him and decides, to his consternation, to have the baby. After Hillel shuns Anat, she and their son move to Australia, where she looks after abandoned joeys (baby kangaroos). When the child turns out to be suffering from emotional problems, Anat summons the estranged father to help out. Hillel thus finds himself on a journey to Australia, during which he will have to grapple not only with his crisis as a father, but also with his crisis as a man.
Because Megged is a highly perceptive writer and a raconteur, reading the story, as told by Hillel, is a pleasurable experience. Hillel is a character who has something to say and knows how to say it (a type not always found in Hebrew literature). One can identify with the story told in “Oshralia” (and also find, if one wants to, biographical resemblances between Megged and his protagonist).
However, the enjoyment of reading this novel is somewhat deceptive, since it tends to obscure the rather gloomy fact that Hillel is – there is no other way to put it – insensitive and infuriating. His life story, which is described at the outset from his viewpoint as that of an involuntary victim, can be viewed differently, too, as that of someone who is himself responsible for ruining his own life, destroying his marriage and also alienating himself from both the daughter he wanted and the son he didn’t want. Hillel is rendered even more insensitive and infuriating by the fact that, even though he occasionally grasps that he should take responsibility for the way things have turned out, these are mere passing flashes of insight that have the effect of leading him to become occupied yet again with the only subject that consistently engages him throughout the book: Hillel.
The disparity between the flowing reading experience and Hillel’s true character makes “Oshralia” a sophisticated literary achievement, for it is no easy matter to make a book about such an unappealing character so enjoyable to read. But the more interesting question concerns the broad context within which Megged’s achievement can be understood: in other words, where to situate the book about the crisis he alludes to, which simultaneously generates identification and is sharp in its language and its perceptions, but is also intolerable.
One possibility is to consider the fact that in recent decades, the male mid-life crisis has become a central theme in Western culture. “Oshralia,” then, can be seen as part of a global trend of literary works and television series (think “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad”) that depict the crisis in masculinity as an allegory for the spirit of the age and the culture in which we live. An anthropological interpretation would say that, consciously or unconsciously, Megged is presenting here a generational crisis. Still, there is one substantive difference between Megged’s protagonist and the protagonists of the TV shows – namely, that Hillel refuses at any price to fulfill any of the roles he is given.
His refusal makes it possible to understand “Oshralia” in the context of Hebrew literature, though in certain senses it can be defined as an absence of context or as a turn against every tradition that has taken root in Hebrew literature. That opposition can be illustrated by a brief comparison between Megged’s book and Amos Oz’s 1987 novel “Black Box.” In both cases, the story is about a wretched family, at whose center is a wayward, rebellious son. But even though the plots are similar, their import is completely different. If in Oz the wild boy is an allegory for a national crisis (and for the settlement movement), in Megged the two cases are separate. In other words, in “Oshralia” the country is miserable and the family is miserable, but each is miserable in its own distinct and separate way. Megged is meticulous about disconnecting the two levels and not letting them merge into one even for a moment. In both cases, it should be noted, he and his protagnoist refuse to take action and prefer to observe and talk about the developments.
Restraining the libido
The tendency to distinguish between the private and the public can be seen as refuting the mechanism that is almost always present in national literature, and certainly in Hebrew national literature (of the Amos Oz sort), which links the psychological realm to the national realm by way of the Oedipus complex. Without getting into the reasons for this, it’s noteworthy that Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher, and Félix Guattari, a French psychiatrist and political activist, were among the first to point out the existence of this connection. They argue that the psychological complex, whose elements include parricide and internalization of the law, is the means by which national literature restrains the untamed libido and brings it into the family structure.
In Megged, the complex that creates a connection between nation and family does not exist; the family drama between father and son ultimately revolves around deception: “Every role you take on yourself contains a degree of impersonation, but to impersonate a father, to assume the role of a father is no less than fraudulent,” he writes. It is not surprising, then, that in the final analysis Megged does not allow the Oedipus complex to develop. Throughout the book, Hillel, who does not rebel against his own parents, refuses to be a father, especially to the son who needs him. That rejection also obviates any connection between the national story and the family story.
Neither story, I will point out without revealing the plot, concludes with a dramatic ending involving murder, which is also a national allegory. Instead of these elements, Megged offers reflections and complaints. The crisis here is that of a person who only observes and talks but does nothing. Megged’s protagonist is a refusenik: He refuses every role, whether of a man, a father or as a player in the national story.
Megged’s flight from the national story and the Oedipus complex is amenable to criticism. It can be argued that he is escaping from the classic role of “prophet of the House of Israel” – someone, that is, whose public role is that of a modern prophet. But by the same token, the stance of the external listener is a model that is no less central in early Hebrew literature.
Prof. Yigal Schwartz, whose 2014 book “The Ashkenazim” (in Hebrew) deals with the genesis of modern Hebrew literature, shows that the familiar model of the prophet who admonishes the people sprang up in Eastern Europe, and that this figure assumed the national role and made use of the national psychological model. But contrary to this, a different model existed in Central Europe – that of the remote observer who listens and cogitates but does not assume a role in the nation and does not write only about the national story. It is to this second model – which ultimately lost in the struggle for hegemony – that Megged’s book belongs. Not only does he write differently from the main tradition, he also systematically deconstructs the connections that its model adduces.
The return to the model of the person who observes from a distance, who discards the psychological story, makes “Oshralia” a refreshing work and also an important literary act. Even though Megged’s protagonist is sometimes intolerable, I prefer the novel’s innovative thrust far more than attempts by other contemporary writers, who try at any price to imitate the “watchman” model. The results of their attempts are often less credible than the plot of “Crocodile Dundee II.”