“[I am] a panther in the basement, seething with oaths and vows.”
Seeing himself as a “panther in the basement,” much like Tyrone Power in a favorite old film, Proffi, the 12-year-old son of activist parents in Jerusalem in 1947, is a member of an “underground cell” which he and two friends have formed. Their objective, like that of their parents, is the ouster of the British, who have been mandated by the UN to set up a Jewish homeland. Though the children enjoy “spying” and see themselves as glorious heroes, their plans of attack are distinctly childish. When Proffi finds himself drawn to Sgt. Stephen Dunlop, a gentle, shy British soldier from Canterbury, who wants to learn Hebrew and to teach Proffi English, Proffi justifies this friendship as his chance to probe for information for his own “secret DOD agency.”
Declared by his friends Ben Hur and Chita Reznik to be a “lowdown traitor” when this friendship is discovered, Proffi feels isolated, at a crossroads in his life. Jerusalem is under constant curfews, the British are searching houses for weapons, his parents are involved in an underground movement, and he himself is beginning to become interested in girls–at least in Yardena, the nineteen-year-old sister of Ben Hur. As we come to know her, the people of the neighborhood, and the people important to Proffi, such as Mr. Gihon, his teacher, we see Proffi’s knowledge and insights to be those of a twelve-year-old child whose belief in a bright future is absolute.
The powerful, often poetic language of this coming-of-age novel by Amoz Oz, along with its lively humor and warm understanding of human nature, make this an unforgettable novel of great universality. The adult narrator, who greatly resembles the author in his background, accurately captures Proffi’s youthful viewpoint, as the novel paints a picture of a loving, scholarly family seeking peace and knowledge, even as they actively try to expel “perfidious Albion.”
As we watch their interchanges with each other, with Proffi, and with British soldiers, we see them as decent people who want to be left in peace in a homeland of their own, to recover from the traumas of the Holocaust. Filled with gorgeous sense impressions and images (the description of the father’s library is stunning), the novel draws in the reader with its contagious warmth and good humor. Written by one of Israel’s most highly regarded novelists, this short novel is an eloquent and elegant testament to enduring values. (On my list of All-Time Favorites.)
The author’s photo accompanies an article wondering when Oz will win the Nobel Prize for Literature. http://www.topnews.in
The photo of the boys talking with British soldiers in 1948 appears on this website: http://idf-israel1948.blogspot.com