Duet in the Desert : DON'T CALL IT NIGHT. By Amos Oz (Harcourt Brace & Company: $22, 199 pp.)

Thomas Frick is an editor in the publications department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Landscape and place in fiction are generally highly symbolic, and there can hardly be a more highly charged pairing than a small town with the Israeli desert. Such surroundings come with existential implications--the absurdity and nobility of creating and maintaining a human world at the edge of nothingness. In "Don't Call It Night," eminent Israeli author Amos Oz's 11th novel, Oz deftly modulates the historic and mythic resonance of such a location to tell a delicate contemporary tale about the quiddities of love and the perpetual mysteries of human motivations.

Theo is a 60-year-old architect, a solid and taciturn man of satisfied ambitions. Seven years previously, he suddenly chose semi-retirement after an active career in Mexico, where he worked as a town planner, to live with Noa, a high school teacher 15 years his junior in Tel Kedar, a small settlement in the Negev desert.

It wasn't sex that precipitated Theo's decision; in Mexico he "had been loving various sorts of women for 30 years." He was "an expert . . . acquainted with menus of pleasures such as [Noa] had not seen in her wildest dreams, if she had ever had wild dreams." The attraction is due to another, less obvious sort of electricity, repeatedly recalled by Theo as an image of Noa's dress whirling around her legs or as the bewitching brew of coffee, Indian herbs and liquor with which she first seduced him.

At the novel's outset, Immanuel Orvieto, a shadowy pupil of Noa's, dies in an ambiguous drug-related incident. The boy's worldly and distant father, Avraham, comes for the funeral from Nigeria, where he is rumored to be a military advisor or perhaps something more unsavory. Out of the blue he proposes to fund a rehabilitation center in Tel Kedar for drug-troubled youth and suggests that Noa spearhead the project. She was the only teacher that Immanuel liked, he tells her.

This is the setup and the engine that drives the narrative. But the novel is much more concerned with the hovering, shifting, day-to-day relations between Theo and Noa and the repetitive comedy of small-town life than it is with plot for plot's sake. Indeed, Oz is a master of suave indirection. The story is told in alternating sections by Theo and Noa, often recapitulating each other from different angles. But it's even subtler than that: Both voices vary between more or less objective and subjective registers. Theo occasionally slips into the third person to talk about himself, befitting his logical way of looking at life as well as his effacement among the locals. Echoing the sentiments of Tel Kedar, Noa calls him "several sizes too big for our little town."

Haunted by the afterimage of Immanuel, a pupil she barely remembers, Noa leaps into the project of setting up the center. She's as heedless of political difficulties--who, in a new town of 9,000 inhabitants surrounded by desert, wants to take in a population of addicts?--as she is of the fact that she is unsuited for the task. Theo, a master of organizational skills, vainly attempts to hold himself back. His offers of help are taken by Noa as an interference. This is something she must do by herself. Nevertheless, Theo silently fronts the money for buying a building when the proffered funds don't come through.

In this situation, Theo's temperament is destined to conflict with Noa's inchoate desires for self-definition. The poignancy of their age difference, the unavoidably divergent needs and viewpoints of their differing places in life, is a rare motif sensitively rendered by Oz. In fact, the rehabilitation center serves as the fateful hinge that allows the pair to confront their differences and taste their desire for others while remaining together on their path of discovery. It's as impossible to imagine this novel being written in English as it is to imagine European directors Eric Rohmer or Alain Tanner directing in Hollywood.

Suffusing the relationship, and the book, are the desert and the town. The wind, the dust, the emptiness, the streets that simply end, the new cemetery ("the dead are still few . . . apart from Bozo's baby none of them was born here or buried with their parents"), the military's "forbidden valley," the "few bushes straddling the line between plants and inanimate objects"--this drab backdrop heightens the liveliness of the myriad characters inhabiting the settlement. And yet, aside from the principal duet, these characters remain, fixedly and sometimes frustratingly, simple types. One could imagine a version of this novel, much longer, in which the subsidiary denizens would be given their own voices. But this wish, in a way a great compliment to the author, perhaps misunderstands the kind of book he has written.

Precise yet lyrical, "Don't Call It Night" is a true "comedy" in the classical manner defined by Cicero--an imitation of common life, a mirror of custom--gently drawing humor from its panoply of easily recognizable, unheroic character types while at the same time prodding us with the underlying truth of our recognition. And as we find out "what happens," the unsurprising outcome is absorbed by the desert like water. Life goes on. We're left with the gyrations of people--the true plot of the book.

At the end of the novel is a detailed list of "The Cast," offering the satisfactions of movie credits. It includes everyone referred to in the text, no matter how briefly or at third hand: "Immanuel Orvieto's dog," "Man crying in Jeep," "String quartet." And this is the success of the book's strategy: One remembers the minor characters as much as the major ones.

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