Outstanding Books # 2: A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
I’ve recently made a major literary discovery – Jewish writer, novelist, political commentator and intellectual, Amos Oz (1939–2018), and in particular his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The son of gifted parents who had emigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, Oz grew up in Jerusalem under the British mandate, and as a child experienced the siege of the city during the 1948 war which followed the creation of the state of Israel. At the age of twelve his world was shattered by his mother’s suicide. Three years later he changed his surname from Klausner to Oz and went off to live on a kibbutz.
By the time he died in December last year Amos Oz had become one of the most celebrated of Jewish writers. He wrote 40 books of fiction and non-fiction, had his work translated into 42 languages and was the winner of numerous literary awards. Many expected him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was renowned not only for his novels and short stories, but also for his political analysis. He was an eloquent spokesman for the Zionist left, defending Israel’s right to exist and defend itself while being critical of Israel’s failure to compromise and accommodate the needs of the Palestinians. He wrote, “Even unavoidable occupation is corrupting occupation.” Although he fought and was wounded in the 1967 and 1971 wars, Oz was an early advocate of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was dubbed by the Guardian Israel’s “most beloved peacenik.”
For those interested in the contemporary political situation, I can’t imagine a more helpful (and engrossing) insight than that provided by his book In the Land of Israel which is the result of extensive interviews and conversations he was part of in Israel and the West Bank with Jews and Arabs of every political and ideological perspective. That book merits a blog entry of its own, but for now I want to concentrate on his personal memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness.
A Tale is moving, poignant, heart-wrenching, funny, deeply humane and utterly absorbing. The greater part of the book is devoted to his childhood memories of growing up in Jerusalem as an only child of two highly educated and gifted, but unhappy parents. His father, a thwarted would-be academic, could read more than a dozen languages and speak eleven. His mother spoke four or five and could read seven or eight. His father was a kindly, sociable rationalist who “never learned how to be close to people” despite trying hard to do so. His mother was deeply imaginative and intuitive, and emotionally starved in her marriage.
There is a single, hauntingly beautiful photo in the book which captures much of the poignance and grace of their lives.
Oz’s childhood memories are amazingly vivid as he takes us into his family world of cultivated Jewish emigres and secular Zionists. This world included his great uncle Joseph Klausner, a leading Zionist who was a candidate in the first Israel Presidential election in 1949 and was a world renowned Hebrew scholar particularly famous for his book on the life of Jesus which argues that Jesus was seeking to reform Judaism, not found a new religion.
Interspersed through the childhood memories and family history are the adult’s informed reflections on the modern history of Israel. For instance, Oz recounts that in the war of 1948 most of the Jewish settlements outside Jerusalem, together with the Jewish Quarter inside the walls of the Old City, fell into the hands of the Arab Legion and that the Arabs implemented a much more complete ethnic cleansing in the territories that they conquered than the Jews did. Then he makes this comment:
In the lives of individuals and of peoples, too, the worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted…. In reality, two children of the same abusive father will not necessarily make common cause, brought together by their shared fate. Often each sees in the other not a partner in misfortune but in fact the image of their common oppressor.
That may well be the case with the hundred-year-old conflict between Arabs and Jews.
The Europe that abused, humiliated, and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, and repression is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews, and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them. But when the Arabs look at us, they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication, and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East – in Zionist guise this time – to exploit, evict, and oppress all over again. And when we look at them, we do not see fellow victims either; we see not brothers in adversity but pogrom-making Cossacks, bloodthirsty anti-Semites, Nazis in disguise, as though our European persecutors have reappeared here in the Land of Israel …
Amos Oz’s book illuminates much in the birth and rise of the modern state of Israel, but at its heart is the personal story of his childhood in Jerusalem and early adulthood on a kibbutz. Different narrative strands and chronological eras are brilliantly interwoven throughout the book so that the tragic outcome to his mother’s depression hangs over his story but is not told till the very end. In large part the book is a coming to terms with his parents and their heritage many years after he has turned away to create a new identity for himself. He explains why he turned away:
The suffocation of life in that basement, between my father and my mother and between the two of them and all those books, the ambitions, the repressed, denied nostalgia for Rovno and Vilna, for a Europe that was embodied by a black tea cart and gleaming white napkins, the burden of his failure in life, the wound of hers, failures that I was tacitly charged with the responsibility of converting into victories in the fullness of time, all this oppressed me so much that I wanted to run away from it.
The opposite pole to the oppressiveness of the family home was the kibbutz where, far from Jerusalem:
A new, rugged race of pioneers was taking shape, strong, serious but not complicated, laconic, able to keep a secret, able to be swept away in a riot of heady dancing, yet also able to be lonely and thoughtful … tough young men and women, ready for any kind of hard work yet with a rich intellectual and cultural life and sensitive, contained feelings. I wanted to be like them so as not to be like my father or my mother or any of those gloomy refugee scholars of whom Jewish Jerusalem was full.
On the kibbutz, Amos Oz discovers a new life, finds his gift as a writer, and meets the love of his life. There is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek purple patch in which he expresses the wonder of Nily, “the” girl on the kibbutz, falling in love with him:
That day, in Hulda, the cows laid eggs, wine came out of the ewes’ udders, and the eucalyptus trees flowed with milk and honey. Polar bears appeared from behind the sheep shed, the emperor of Japan was seen wandering behind the laundry… and all the hills melted. The sun stood still for seventy-seven hours and refused to set. And I went to the empty boys’ showers, locked myself in, stood in front of the mirror and asked aloud, Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me how did this happen? What have I done to deserve it?
This is a book which embeds itself deeply in the reader’s mind and lives with you long after you’ve put it down.