The Hill of Evil Counsel (Har Ha'etsah Hara'ah) by Amos Oz, 1974

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THE HILL OF EVIL COUNSEL (Har ha'etsah hara'ah)
by Amos Oz, 1974

The novella The Hill of Evil Counsel (Har ha'etsah hara'ah) by Amos Oz chronicles in microcosm the physical and psychological rites of passage that European Jewish émigrés to Palestine endured during 1946 and 1948, the twilight of the British mandate. Actual events, such as World War II and political incidents in Palestine during this period, anchor the story in a specific historical context in which the ineffectual inhabitants of Tel Arza, a forlorn village just outside Jerusalem, live out their tense lives. These people include Dr. Hans Kipnis, a gentle, rumpled veterinarian from Silesia and the nephew of the famous geographer Hans Walter Landauer; his elegant wife Ruth, who, as a child of a wealthy secular family in Warsaw, was adept at watercolors and reciting Polish nationalistic poetry; and their son, about six or seven years old, the precocious, pudgy, asthmatic Hillel, who like Oz was born in Jerusalem.

Because he came to the medical assistance of the high commissioner's sister-in-law, Lady Bromley, at a public celebration, Kipnis receives an invitation to the May Ball at the commissioner's palace, which is located atop the Hill of Evil Counsel. As Kipnis and Ruth prepare to attend, their backgrounds and those of their neighbors emerge through flashbacks, showing us how they have come to Palestine. Some, like Kipnis, had emigrated for ideological or religious reasons; others, like Ruth, had come for a visit but were forced to remain because of the outbreak of World War II.

Powerful secondary characters add further texture and depth to the story. The best-drawn character is the fanatical leftist Mitya. Compulsively neat and usually meek, he is sometimes prone to verbal outbursts that are oracular in diction and filled with images of violence and destruction. The musicians Madame Yabrov and Lyubov, her niece, baby-sit young Hillel while his parents attend the May Ball. After plying the boy with a large meal, they put him to bed. There, in the uncertain state between wakefulness and sleep, Hillel feels someone touching his penis. It is unclear whether it is one of the women or Hillel himself. The engineer Brzezinski rigs up a gigantic radio antenna to receive news and builds a telescope because "he would be the first to see them when they arrived." Whom "they" refers to is not explained, but probably Arabs who someday will attack the village.

Educated, urban, and dislocated, the adults are overwhelmed by the gaping differences between their former circumstances and their new ones. Chamber music and Beethoven's Eroica offer a counterpoint to the muezzin's call to prayer and the howl of jackals. Though a master of modern Occidental technology, Brzezinski gets drunk on arrack, a "frightful Oriental drink." Hillel is fed Quaker Oats, while Arab men drink strong, black coffee in tiny cups. As if to retain their identity and resist integration with the new land, the inhabitants, and by extension most, if not all, Jews in Palestine, cling to the siege mentality of "us against them." According to Oz, they seem to be thinking only in terms of "self" and "other."

But there seems to be no agreement among the various "selves" either. Mitya rants against latter-day "Hellenizers," a term referring to Jews who in earlier periods of history adopted Greek (that is, European) ideas and abandoned their essential Judaism. The photograph of Kipnis's famous uncle is ever present, however. A proud, successful, assimilated (that is, "Hellinized") Jew who, as a geographer, possessed a vast worldview, he looks down from the wall with patronizing disdain on the events in the Kipnis household, in the neighborhood, and, more globally, in all of Palestine. Kipnis and Ruth seem to be caught somewhere in between, but there seems to be an unspoken hope of some kind for the Jerusalem-born Hillel.

At the ball Ruth meets a dashing British naval hero who dances with her all evening. They run off together. When he learns of this, Hillel climbs a high tree, creating turmoil among the adults, who try to coax him down, and he leaps "up to the last leaf, to the shore of the sky." One is left to conjecture what actually happens to the boy. In the coda of the story the State of Israel is established, and the fate of the various inhabitants of Tel Arza is revealed. The village itself eventually becomes a part of Jerusalem and braces itself for attack from its enemies.

The destructiveness of anti-Semitism, a major theme in Oz's works, is harrowingly depicted here, first, in the ironic story title itself. During the waning days of the mandate, the British offered everything but good council to either the Zionists or the Arabs. Lady Bromley is viciously amused as she devastates Kipnis, whom she refers to disdainfully as "a Jew," with the news that Ruth has run off.

Semiautobiographical, The Hill of Evil Counsel is the title piece of a collection of three loosely connected novellas, each of which has a young boy as a central character. The stories also share a common time period, locale, and several minor characters.

—Carlo Coppola

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