In 1948, the state of Israel has given birth to new warriors: young men and women who refuse to ever again allow the annihilation suffered by their relatives, led quietly to slaughter while citizens turned the other way. This is a land in flux, anxiously preparing for the end of the British Occupation and the birth of their own Promised Land.
Proffi lives in a time of epiphany, where the fears and caution of youth become self-reliance and pride at the onset of adolescence. In one pivotal summer, the simplicity of childhood is relegated to a chapter in his life, the boy already become a young man who registers the nuances, the many facets of human behavior, even in the actions of the British occupiers.
In the midst of historical change and surrounded by the knowledge of generations, Proffi's home environment venerates the written word, the accumulation of knowledge. His father's bookshelves reach to the ceiling, smelling of must and old paper, a most heady perfume to the solitary child.
Life is good, Proffi’s world defined by sundry battles and a newly awakened curiosity about the female sex. Every day, after his parents have left and before his friends tap softly on the door, Proffi recreates great military battles, using whatever is handy to plan each new siege. An hour later, Ben Hur and Chita Reznik assist in strategizing campaigns and plan forays aimed at the British Occupation, the boys' own secret organization FOD: Freedom or Death.
Proffi finds an accusation painted on the wall: Traitor! He is required to answer the serious charge at a meeting of the FOD the following afternoon. Proffi already knows his fate at the hands of his friends, not expecting them to understand his innocent curiosity about the British soldier: "Anyone branded a traitor is a traitor forever." Indeed, Proffi is guilty of fraternizing with the enemy -, the hapless Sergeant Dunlop, a plump Englishman with no bad intentions and a sincere desire to return home to his family. The boy and the soldier have been meeting at a local cafe, each learning the language of the other, a secret and innocent pleasure: “Instead of a panther in the basement, they saw me as a knife in the back.”
Panther in the Basement is a coming-of-age story set in the fulcrum of history, as a young boy navigates the mysteries of life in a world defined by the Holocaust, while being confronted with the daily challenges of friendship in a new context. The future requires a different perspective, leaving childhood behind and ushering in personal choices, a new-found sense of self.
This small novel provides a brilliant analysis, a pivotal moment of a life on the cusp of change. In lyrical prose, Amos Oz's Proffi embarks upon an emotional journey, guided by row upon row of treasured books and a family who understands the impermanence of time. While life awaits, childhood still beckons seductively.