(Published (in Hebrew) by Keter Books)
Amos Oz, the doyen of Hebrew writers, was not awarded the prestigious International Man Booker literary prize, which went instead to David Grossman’s book, ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’ (see my review of it in my blog post for 3 August). Having read both books in the original Hebrew, I am unable to give an opinion as to the quality of the translation of either, but as far as I can tell Oz’s book is a more enjoyable read.
The story concerns the three-month period in the winter of 1959 spent by drop-out student, Shmuel Ash, in a house in Jerusalem, where he is employed to serve as a debating counterpart to an elderly and disabled intellectual. Oz’s descriptions of the exigencies of the Jerusalem winter, the interior of the strange house and the characters of its even stranger inhabitants seem somehow to ring true. As someone who has lived in Jerusalem for fifty years, this reader found the characters described in the book, ranging from Shmuel Ash’s professor at the university, Gustav Eisenschloss, the old man whom Shmuel is employed to entertain, Gershom Wald, and his enigmatic but seductive daughter-in-law, Atalya, the widow of his son who was killed in Israel’s War of Independence, convincing and even vaguely familiar.
A sense of menace hangs over the events – or rather non-events – recounted in the book, ranging from the political disagreement in the period prior to the foundation of the state of Israel between Atalya’s late father and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, on the one hand, to Shmuel Ash’s attempts to write an academic analysis of the attitude of the Jews to Jesus through the ages, on the other. Through their disagreement, Amos Oz manages to present the argument both for and against the establishment of the Jewish state with rare conviction. The concept of betrayal, of the betrayer as ‘Judas,’ and the Judas of the gospels as the representative of the Jews who rejected Jesus and Christianity, also runs through the book as a constant leitmotif. Over and above the intellectual parrying of the various characters hangs Shmuel’s attraction for he unattainable Atalya, and the developing relationship – or rather non-relationship – between them.
The frequent repetition of the actions that constitute Shmuel’s daily routine of ablutions, regular haunts and eating habits tends to become somewhat tedious after a while. The incidental chapter that purports to give Judas’s eye-witness account of the crucifixion of Jesus and the events leading up to it seems to me to be superfluous and out of place, even though it does provide some kind of explanation for what happened and why. Even so, the detailed and gory account jars on the reader’s sensibilities and interrupts the flow of the narrative that concerns the characters in the story, and Jerusalem in the period before the Six Day War.
In this book Amos Oz paints a picture of a time and place that are no more, and of characters that belong to that time and place, and are possibly no longer to be found in the Israel that emerged in the wake of the Six-Day War and all that it entailed. I have a sneaking feeling that Oz regards the bumbling, fumbling hero, Shmuel Ash, as something of an alter ego, which in my view couldn’t be further from the truth. Nonetheless, for someone like me, who is not averse to a bit of nostalgia, the book is entertaining, enlightening and enjoyable.