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Absorbing novel shows conflicts of Israeli life

A Perfect Peace, by Amos Oz. New York and San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book. Translated by Hillil Halkin. 374 pp. $16.95. Amos Oz, the most prominent and perhaps best living Israeli writer, observes his embattled country's ongoing political and social ferment with the protective enthusiasm of a dedicated partisan (he lives and works on a kibbutz), but also with the essential detachment and combative curiosity of the born novelist. This is triumphantly evident in his newest book, a story of ideological and generational conflict that also offers a detailed picture of life in Israel and a series of absorbing characteriz ations.

The story begins: ``In the winter of 1965 Yonatan Lifshitz decided to leave his wife and the kibbutz on which he had been born and raised . . . to run away and start a new life.'' It proceeds to elucidate Yonatan's dissatisfaction with the constraints placed on him by his obligation to fulfill the roles of husband (to a placid, lifeless woman whose serene dutifulness infuriates him), son (of a ``principled old socialist'' consumed by Zionist ideals), and member (of Kibbutz Grano t, situated alarmingly close to the Jordanian border). We're made privy to Yonatan's angry, self-torturing intellections -- and to the complications that increase his burdens when an odd stranger enters Granot and burrows his way into a most curious intimacy with Yonatan and his wife, Rimona.

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Azariah Gitlin, ``a bizarrely philosophical, overtalkative, and somewhat pathetic young man,'' a survivor of the Holocaust (``in Europe he had grown up under Hitler's boot''), exudes the kind of zeal and communal feeling Yonatan cannot comprehend. Unlike his new friend, Azariah is done with wandering and desperate to settle among his fellow Jews. Here is a further conflict -- which the novel examines by telling the story from the viewpoints of Yonatan, Rimona, and Azariah, and also those of other involved characters for whom their contention is evidence of ``what a strange breed these young people are.''

Yonatan goes away into the desert; returns; he, Rimona, and Azariah settle into a three-person ``family,'' to which a child is born. It may not be the ``perfect peace'' Yonatan had dreamed of, but it seems an acceptable (if unconventional) accommodation to the specific threats of collapsed Israeli-Arab negotiations and looming hostilities (the ``six-day war'' of 1967 is explicitly and repeatedly foreshadowed) and the more general apprehension that a life lived in deference, if not in thrall, to a community is something less than a full life.

Oz varies the narrative, and energizes the dialectic implicit in it, by focusing ingeniously differentiated attention on his several major characters. We eavesdrop on Azariah's dreams of becoming a beloved kibbutz leader. His self-conscious, all-but-delirious rant is reminiscent of the sounds we hear in some of Dostoyevsky's characters. We follow the political activities of Yonatan's father Yolek; his friend-enemy relationship with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, and his avuncular fears for the younger, les s-politically-committed generation. Rimona's dreams of the mystery and color of Africa and Yonatan's attraction toward the long-abandoned desert settlement of Petra are dramatic expressions of each's otherwise inexpressible yearnings.

``A Perfect Peace'' is far from a perfect novel. It's too long; the dramatic intensity of its first third is nowhere near matched by the attenuations and repetitions of its remainder. A subplot emphasis on the relationship between Yonatan's mother Hava and Benya Trotsky, a former kibbutznik relocated in Miami, is very badly handled. And it must be admitted that whenever Yonatan indulges his loudly articulated discontents, the book just drones on.

But the intensity with which Oz analyzes his characters dominates the novel, and wins us over. We want to know if, and how, they'll adapt to the responsibilities placed on them by their nation and faith, and we're persuaded -- as all good fiction must persuade us -- that the issue of their survival is identical with our own.

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