Amos Oz: “The King of Norway”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Amos Oz’s “The King of Norway” was first published in The New Yorker‘s January 17, 2011, issue.  It was translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.

Click for a larger image.

For the third time in a row, The New Yorker‘s fiction is a very short piece, and again it is from an established author; Amos Oz’s name comes up every October in conjunction with the Nobel Prize.  However, as short as it is,  this story, with its fabular pace, is slower than the last two, and that is not a bad thing.  We recognize it is a fable from the tone in the very beginning:

On our kibbutz, Kibbutz Yekhat, there lived a man, Zvi Provizor, a short fifty-five-year-old bachelor who was given to blinking.  He loved to convey bad news: earthquakes, plane crashes, buildings collapsing on their occupants, fires, and floods.

Zvi is the kibbutz gardener, and apparently he is very good (“Thanks to him, the kibbutz bloomed.”).  Each morning he gets up early to work and carries around a transistor radio “that provided him with a constant stream of disastrous news.”  Due to his strange hobby of watching the news in order to report all of the tragedies, Zvi is well known by everyone in the kibbutz, but no one likes to be around him.  They call him the Angel of Death.  They also deride him, saying “that he didn’t have, and had never had, an interest in women.  Or in men, for that matter.”  They mimic his voice.

In the dining room, they rarely joined him at his table.  On summer evenings, he would sit alone on the green bench at the foot of the large lawn in front of the dining room and watch the children playing on the grass.  the breeze billowed his shirt, drying his sweat.  A hot summer moon shone red as it rose aboe the tall cypress trees.

In the course of the story, Zvi greets a forty-five-year-old widow named Luna Black: “Did you hear?  In Spain, an orphanage burned down and eighty orphans died of smoke inhalation.”  She says simply, “That’s horrible.”  Zvi and Luna become quite close and soon are meeting every evening.  Everyone quickly notices: “Roni Shindlin said in the dining room that the Angel of Death had spread his wings over the Black Widow.”  Zvi and Luna carry on, hardly caring that they are the object of gossip and sarcasm.  It only goes bad when Luna gets a bit too close:

One evening, as he regaled her with an affecting description of the starvation in Somalia, compassion for him so overwhelmed her that she suddenly took his hand and held it to her breast.  Zvi trembled and pulled it back quickly, with a gesture that was almost violent.  His eyes blinked frantically.

He leaves quickly.  The rest of the story — about a fourth of it — is the weeks and months afterwards when Zvi completely avoids Luna: “At lunch, Roni Shidlin told his tablemates that the Angel of Death had cut his honeymoon short and, from now on, they were all in danger.”  It’s a sad little fable, told by the community — the “we” the “our” — about this strange, tragic old bachelor.

Now, to be honest, I need your help here.  I haven’t come up with a satisfying interpretation of all that goes on here, as much as I enjoyed just letting the story take me in.

14 thoughts on “Amos Oz: “The King of Norway””

  1. Aaron says:

    Can’t really help you out with this one (I wrote a response here: http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2011/01/short-day-amos-ozs-king-of-norway.html). The plot lacked anything original to suck me in with (I just read about a similar character in Owen Marshall’s “The Frozen Continent,” so maybe that’s part of it?), I found the story littered with irrelevant sections (the politics of the other kibbutz members), and the central characters were too vaguely defined for me to care for their so-called relationship (which, you have to admit, came out of the blue).

    If this is a “fable,” then the moral is that The New Yorker needs to stop publishing big-name authors simply because they’re big-name authors.

  2. Joe says:

    In response to Trevor’s query, I’m not sure there is anything to interpret. To me, this is one of those village fables in the manner of Isaac Bashevis Singer, et al. And therein lies the problem.

    Unless I’ve missed something, there doesn’t seem to be anything that’s new here and, as I was reading the story, I kept waiting for something — some twist or flash of creativity — that would indicate that this story was written in the last 50 years. Is there anyone who still believes there’s something noble and romantic about the village idiot?

    I’m not a big fan of Forrest Gumpery, so I found this story pretty bland and disappointing and, like Aaron, I felt that it would never have been published if it had been written by you or me.

  3. Trevor says:

    I agree, Aaron and Joe: something is missing here. Though I did actually enjoy reading the story. I liked seeing the inside of this kibbutz, and I liked the disturbed Zvi. But if this is just a nice (to me — not to you) brush stroke of community and character, then it is missing something I want in a good short story.

    I didn’t put Zvi in the same category as Forrest Gump, though, Joe, though Zvi certainly could be mentally challenged in some regard. Perhaps he’s autistic. Or perhaps he’s witnessed some horror himself. Or both.

    At any rate, with no apparent undercurrent, I’ll throw my hat in with Aaron and Joe: why was this published? Is the pleasure of the sketch enough? Can I really wonder if a Nobel candidate hasn’t got something brilliant up his sleeve that I’m missing? Well, I’ve done it before.

  4. Betsy says:

    Well, Trevor, you asked for some thoughts on this story! Zvi tells Luna he is from Yanov and that he had joined the chalutz youth movement. Those movements were impatient with life in Europe; some of them were very idealistic Zionists. The Yanov Forest is the site of the unusual and heroic resistance of thousands of Polish Jews, many of them young men. Hiding in the forest, may survived the war. I wonder if the glancing mention of Yanov is therefore somewhat crucial to the story, some kind of trial by fire. The back story is important, I think, although the chronology doesn’t seem to allow for Zvi, who says he has never touched anyone else in his adult life, to have begun this as a result of the war. One other thing. The kibbutz considers him too odd for their taste; they gossip about him; the narrator in one place says “We all …” (Reminds me of Faulkner and his use of we in “A Rose for Emily”.) It’s as if Oz is saying – we found him a pain, but he remains our stumbling block, with his devotion to work, to the gardens and their beauty, to the ideal of the kibbutz -which as a member of the chalutz he must have cherished for years before he ever set foot in Israel. So I’m wondering if this is about the pain of remaining true to ideals, and what might cause you to choose such a life.

  5. Betsy says:

    Also, the title seems important. For one thing, it places the story in 1957. But more important, the king in question, Haakon VII, resisted the Nazi takeover of Norway and lived in exile in England during that time. So he was a leader. That Zvi notes his death remarks somehow on the passage of time and the distance they have traveled from the war. Perhaps it is also a comment from Zvi to his co-workers on the distance they have traveled since the war. The distance, perhaps, from their ideals. somehow, that the title and the last words of the story make a frame for the story makes the idea of the king of Norway important. You pointed out, Trevor, that the story is like a fable. Thanks – that got me thinking about all this.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments and the research, Betsy! I suspected that Zvi had some turbulence in his past, and this points that way too.

    The story is sticking with me and wants me to figure it out better.

  7. I will preface all this by saying: “The King of Norway” is the first fiction I’ve ever read by Amos Oz. I have nothing to go on; I literally perused his Wikipedia page moments ago. But I got a subscription to The New Yorker last year sometime, and I’ve been reading their fiction pieces religiously.

    Generally, as I read the story, I sensed this accordion effect. It was as if the world was moving in and out — through, in particular, the friendship between Zvi and Luna — vascillating between fullness and emptiness. I very much liked the story, especially its pace, but it was strangely satisfying and unsatisfying.

    As for interpretations, here are my two lingering reflections on Zvi. And perhaps they fit the accordion analogy.

    First, although he maintained desperately open eyes to the daily grind of human sorrow, his heart seemed to remain achingly closed to the transcendent bursts of joy in human friendship (even as he was experiencing them).

    Second, as a gardener and a news follower, the way he tended to the world of the kibbutz and the world at-large was gentle and touching. But he appeared not to know how to allow his personal world to be affected or, God forbid, overwhelmed by gentleness and touch.

  8. Trevor says:

    I very much liked the story, especially its pace, but it was strangely satisfying and unsatisfying

    Nathan, I couldn’t agree more. And the rest of what you say is a nice articulation of my impressions.

  9. Ken says:

    I’ll mostly echo Joe and Aaron-pleasant enough but not too original or meaty or too much of anything. Short at least and yes it seems that Oz’s name is why this was published-better at least than the horrible stories Stephen King foists off on the New Yorker.

  10. Trevor says:

    better at least than the horrible stories Stephen King foists off on the New Yorker.

    Shhh, Ken! Last year Joe mentioned Alice Munro and she appeared int the next week’s fiction (a good thing). We don’t want the same thing to happen with Stephen King (who is probably due another appearance soon)!

  11. PHYLLIS says:

    Thank you all for all your comments. I lead a group which discusses the New Yorker fiction weekly and your comments have given me some excellent questions with which to begin the discussion.I particularly like the suggestion that focusing on the King of Norway points up how far the Israelis had strayed from their ideals, particularly since Luna left for America and turned her back on the kibbutz. Also, the info on Yanov forest is also helpful as it suggests a reason he shies from human touch.

  12. Trevor says:

    Welcome, Phyllis. I’m sure all of us here would love it if you and your group came back to share your insights on this or any other New Yorker fiction piece!

  13. Betsy says:

    Zvi is a stumbling block. These days we idealize gardening and Zvi is the ideal gardener. But at the same time, we are very suspicious of an asexual, monklike man. We sense the possibility of asexuality as a dangerous impossibility, ultimately. We distrust the integrity of the proposal that a person could be ascetic, through and through.

    There is a theory in education these days, however, of sensory integration dysfunction, and theoretically, the dysfunction takes many forms and can be in varying degrees of intensity. One form is familiar to many elementary teachers – a child who dislikes being touched. The child experiences some degree of panic when touched, and avoids it vigorously. Looked at in this way, Zvi might seem a more authentic person. His withdrawal from touch is a then a natural thing, part of his integrity. He then could feel almost familiar – except that he is this kind of person to an intense degree. If we saw Zvi as this type of ascetic – an ascetic of touch – in the extreme degree – he perhaps would not seem so much someone who needed to be rescued, as someone who has reached an accommodation with what he is, through and through.

    Part of that accommodation has to be his compulsion to note aloud and to others whenever he reads of sorrow in the world. I think it’s a form of prayer. It feels odd – to merely note, and to do nothing. But I think it is a form of prayer. In this lifelong meditation about sorrow, he connects with others -on a daily basis – and on his own terms.

    In doing so, he is a kind of reincarnation of the king of Norway, the man who in his exile in England was a symbol of resistance to the Nazis. Zvi himself is a king of Norway (a king of asceticism) and lives his life in exile, but at the same time he is a kind of prophet – strange and true – as he reflects to others the reality of suffering in the world.

  14. Trevor says:

    You put it nicely, Betsy. I am glad you’ve kept with this story as I had marked it off as pleasant but lacking. You’re showing me that there is more to this story than meets the eye. I had suspected that, but I couldn’t connect the dots.

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