cover image Panther in the Basement

Panther in the Basement

Amos Oz, Oz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $27 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100287-0

The narrator of Oz's tender and affecting 12th novel (after Don't Call it Night) is an Israeli looking back on the summer of 1947, a pivotal time in his and his country's existence. In that last summer of British rule, Proffy (short for Professor) was ""twelve and a quarter,"" a typically precise statement from the boy he was, obsessed with words and their meanings, and the man he has become (perhaps Oz himself). The word that is most confusing to Proffy is ""traitor,"" since he is accused by his friends of having betrayed their secret ""underground"" group (they have grandiose plans to drive out the English and fight the Arabs) and their country via his friendship with a British policeman. This man, Sgt. Dunlop, a kind and vulnerable loner who proclaims that his heart ""is in thrall to the Chosen People,"" has asked Proffy to teach him modern Hebrew (he already speaks the language with biblical cadences). The conflicted Proffy is drawn to Dunlop, who is officially his enemy. Proffy is a fully rounded creation: a bookish adolescent with a vivid imagination, patriotic fervor and an incomplete understanding of events. His preoccupation with heroic fantasies and games and his burgeoning sexual curiosity are charming and funny. Yet his knowledge of the dangers in daily life--his parents both pursue clandestine activities against the British--makes him mature for his age. Though Oz is oddly clumsy and obvious with the ""panther in the basement"" image, in all other respects the novel delicately investigates its theme. The question of treachery has a timely resonance--Rabin's assassin called him a traitor to his country--and this moral conundrum deepens the narrative's implications. Yet this is a gentle, unassuming story, both serious and amusing, told with perfect pitch and a humane awareness of life's paradoxes and ironies. U.K. and translation rights: Deborah Owen. (Oct.)