“Life goes on. One way or another everyone gets left alone,” is the prescriptive claim of The Same Sea, stated with a tone of resignation. There is little indignation in the face of this reality, only the quiet, accepting murmuring that this is how it is. Although The Same Sea emphasizes the solitary nature of life, it also acknowledges the possibility, however difficult and unlikely, of transcendence.
The entire book is written in one to three page entries that mix poetic form and prose. It reads as a collection of fragments, and the effect is a challenging, but not disjointed or confusing, form. It is a mosaic of individual voices and visions: Oz relates the solitary, depressed lives of his main characters with brief, poetic reflections on their emotions and actions. Their richness stems from Oz’s ability to maintain diversity of perspective without straying from the book’s main themes of the possibility of forming relationships of warmth and depth and the quest for meaning and purpose in life.
This form gives expression to one of the central propositions of Oz’s work: human interaction is inherently awkward and exceedingly difficult. Oz and the characters in The Same Sea repeatedly refer to caged emotional states, enclosure and separation. Characters address one another in these selections but rarely interact. When the narrator describes their interactions they are almost exclusively failed attempts at communication.
Silence and the sea are recurring forces here: they consume life and form its ending point. The narrator sets the rueful meditative tone of the book from the beginning, that of an aged man staring out at the sea alone in his apartment, his wife dead and his child traveling and out of reach. The narrator reflects on how life constantly moves on, leaving individuals behind, to be replaced by new ones, who will then also be left behind.
Even you. Everyone. All Bat Yam will be full of new people and they in their turn, all alone in the night, will wonder at times with surprise what the moon is doing to the sea and what is the purpose of silence. And they too will have no reply… The purpose of silence is silence.
We learn that a man named Albert Danon, a tax accountant, lives in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv and that his wife Nadia recently died of ovarian cancer. His son, Rico, is hiking in Tibet seeking meaning in his life by leaving the familiar. Rico’s girlfriend, Dita, a filmmaker, has moved in with Albert and is making sexually suggestive overtures to him. Nadia, although dead, addresses her son in his travels and comforts his searching soul.
Oz writes in sharp, concise sentences that sound mechanical, evoking the banality of Albert Danon’s life: “Either way, Mr Danon will get up now and switch off his computer. He will go and stand by the window. Outside in the yard on the wall is a cat. It has spotted a lizard. It will not let go.” Rico travels, and Albert turns inward, even as he tries to be affectionate towards a sensitive and emotionally needy Dita. Bettine, a 60-year-old widower who befriends Albert is able to express affection, albeit subtly and through a prism of doubt that questions man’s ability to perceive the depth and wonder contained in individuals’ lives and in life as a whole.
Oz is concerned with what friends, children, parents, and lovers do when each loves and misses the other but cannot convey it. Rico and Nadia speak to one another through dreams. Albert feels some affection and attraction towards Dita, but their interactions are tentative and uncomfortable. A short postcard from Rico arrives saying that Tibet is snowy, reminding him of the snow in Bulgaria in his mother’s bedtime stories. All Rico manages to express is the isolation and obliteration of nature. “And by the way, the thin air somehow totally changes every sound. Even the most terrifying shout doesn’t break the silence but instead, how can I put this, joins it.”
Oz writes skeptically about how people try to avoid the sadness that results from the caged nature of life by finding meaning through travel and intellectual engagement with social concerns. Oz describes Rico’s room, cluttered with books about social injustice, but now empty. Even the pursuit of helping the powerless does not provide an adequate answer to Rico’s need to flee the country, and attempt to find solace in traveling away from the spaces of his loneliness. Still, as his postcard explains, he finds the same silence from which he fled.
Oz’s characters throw one another bits of affection in the form of a fleeting smile or a trace of tenderness in words slipped into the end of a sentence that are barely audible, but still discernable. They do not fear emotional openness nor are they consciously resistant to it; they are simply incapable of it. Oz illustrates how unknowable people are in his depictions of Albert’s friend, the carpenter, who commits suicide out of the blue. No matter how well you think you know a person, Oz claims, his interior life cannot be penetrated.
Everyone in fact is condemned to wait for their own death locked in a separate cage… Everyone has their own captivity. The bars separate everyone from everyone else.
In the book’s spare and simple prose, Oz creates the human sensation of perception at its most basic. Although he writes lyrically at various points in the book, he does not use his poetic skill with abandon. He wants the objects of life to stand for themselves, in their rawness and isolation. Oz describes seeing, “A ruin. A church. A fig tree. A bell. A tower. A tiled roof. Wrought-iron grilles. A lemon tree. A smell of fried fish. And between two walls a sail and a sea rocking itself.” Oz is attune to the associational nature of perception and he is at his best when he links an image of olive oil or salt with a landscape, a country, and an emotional state of being. Sometimes Oz depicts the sea in its literal simplicity. And other times it is a metaphor and a series of images interacting with people and place. Oz is after something much more difficult, hidden from the viewer than aesthetic beauty—the sublimated vitality of life.
Oz unmasks the author, reflecting periodically on how it feels for an author to write—in particular the vulnerability and loneliness that inspires writing and that can result from it. Just as there is alienation between Albert and Rico, there is alienation between Oz and the product of his creativity. Oz serves as the narrator of his own work and he interrupts the story occasionally to comment on the nature of authorship. For Oz, articulation does not serve as a form of catharsis leading to calmness and clarity; it merely confirms life’s challenges
Although Oz focuses on that which separates individuals from one another, including the passage of time, his writing is deeply informed by the past in the form of his repeated biblical allusions. These allusions form a substantial part of The Same Sea’s literary richness. They provide a highly modern work marked by existential disillusionment and a constant shifting of voices and images with grounding in the past and a sense of continuity.
Oz’s references to the Hebrew Bible range widely from the erotic lyricism of the Song of Songs to Job’s acceptance of unjust suffering as God’s will. Oz’s thoughts on the passage of time are reminiscent of the doomed attitude in the biblical work of Ecclesiastes that emphasizes life’s futility and transience, and in particular, man’s emergence from dust and inevitable return to dust.
All this is diminishing. Fading…. Nadia and Rico, Dita, Albert… The Tibetan mountains will last for a while, as will the nights, and the sea. All the rivers flow into the sea, and the sea is silence silence silence.
There are a few moments of raw generosity, of gentle altruism that serve as a counterpoint to the melancholy tone of the book. Bettine allows Albert to embrace her. She becomes a stand in for someone else, a long lost love that he misses. But she is willing to alleviate his suffering for a moment, even to give up her individuality briefly.
Although Oz’s tone is consistently melancholy, he ends The Same Sea with an unusually positive claim that verges on a nullification of the existential pessimism that informs the work. Oz writes, “Arise now and go, light and calm get up and go in search of what you have lost.” Oz is questioning his insistence that “One way or another everyone gets left alone.” It is a welcome change from the book’s sometimes too confident depiction of the harshness of life and of human nature.
The Same Sea offers an excessively gray vision of life, that of a depressed individual, unwilling to acknowledge that happiness and beauty are integral parts of life. It feels as though a smiling couple laughing carelessly or two friends engaged in an intimate and openly affectionate conversation would completely throw this book off course. We are supposed to feel caged and lonely, and caged and lonely people do not do such things. Surely not enough—but Oz’s acknowledgement of the positive aspects of life seems oddly placed towards the very end of the book, almost grudgingly.
Bettine’s vision of life, so attuned to the sublimated nature of beauty, ideas, love—is able to see beyond exteriors and silences and the eternal consuming sea. She knows how to give and receive love and is able to build to create spaces of intimacy. About her grandchildren Bettine says, “On Friday night they stay with me/ and snuggle into in my bed. I protect them/ from the nightmares and the cold, and they protect me/ from loneliness and death.” In part because of this, she is able to perceive.
At one point in the book Oz writes, “Why walk across chasms?” the challenge being so great and the reward so rarely received. In a willfully roundabout and extremely effective way, Oz argues that indeed that is the only thing worth doing.