Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Introducing a tale of love and darkness

By Amos Oz

Translated by: Nicholas de Lange

Tragic, comic, and utterly honest, this
extraordinary memoir is at once a great family saga and a magical self-portrait
of a writer who witnessed the birth of a nation and lived through its
turbulent history.

It is the story of a boy growing up in the war-torn
Jerusalem of the forties and fifties, in a small apartment crowded with
books in twelve languages and relatives speaking nearly as many. His
mother and father, both wonderful people, were ill-suited to each other.
When Oz was twelve and a half years old, his mother committed suicide,
a tragedy that was to change his life. He leaves the constraints of
the family and the community of dreamers, scholars, and failed businessmen
and joins a kibbutz, changes his name, marries, has children, and finally
becomes a writer as well as an active participant in the political life
of Israel.

A story of clashing cultures and lives, of suffering
and perseverance, of love and darkness.


A tale of love and darkness

By Amos Oz

A review

It is not every day that one of the world's master storytellers turns
the microscope on himself and unflinchingly examines the wellsprings
of his personal and creative life. Amos Oz, Israel's best-known and
possibly most accomplished novelist and political essayist, has done
just that in this superbly crafted and profoundly moving memoir.

His mother's suicide, when he was just 12 years old, is the harrowing
"tale of darkness" that lies at the core of Oz's story. It
left him hurt, angry, betrayed and, above all, full of guilt and self-loathing:
"All mothers love their children," he writes, "that's
a law of nature. Even a cat or a goat. Even mothers of criminals and
murderers. Even mothers of Nazis. . . . The fact that only I couldn't
be loved, that my mother had run away from me, only proved that there
was nothing in me to love, that I didn't deserve love."

Fortunately for Oz, he was not engulfed by that darkness, nor has he
allowed it to cloud his work. Indeed, there is a great deal more love
than darkness, both in his fiction and in this life-affirming memoir.


Oz recreates, with bitter-sweet nostalgia, the pre-1948 Jewish-Arab
Jerusalem he grew up in as the only child of two deeply unhappy, misplaced
immigrants, Aryeh and Fania Klausner. This was home until, about two
years after his mother's suicide, he went to live on a kibbutz - the
iconic creation of the self-assured, muscular new Jew, as far removed
as is imaginable from the claustrophobic intellectual-immigrant world
of his parents. He even rejected his Diaspora-Jewish name Klausner in
favour of Oz, Hebrew for "strength, force, boldness".

Characteristically, he learned to recognise that this "old Jew/new
Jew" dichotomy is a false one. Indeed, it is a leitmotif that runs
through Oz's work that obsession with polarity of any kind - Israel/Diaspora,
Jew/Arab, and even, perhaps especially, man/woman - is both reductive
and destructive. His task as a writer is to explore the common ground,
to seek the self in the other, the other in the self.

We meet dozens of marvellous characters, each drawn with the economy,
insight and gentle irony that are hallmarks of Oz's storytelling.

His mother Fania, hardly surprisingly, occupies centre stage as, seeking
the roots of his family tragedy, Oz traces the trajectory that took
her from her idealistic girlhood in an increasingly hostile Poland to
the dark basement flat in Jerusalem where she sunk deeper and deeper
into her final, fatal depression.

She is portrayed as the tragic victim of a failed, perhaps impossible,
Zionist dream: "My mother grew up surrounded by an angelic cultural
vision of misty beauty whose wings were finally dashed on a hot dusty
pavement of Jerusalem stone."

Poles apart from his tragic mother is his wife of 45 years, Nily -
the vivacious, always-singing epicentre of light and joy in his life:
"the clapper in the bell" - who he met on the kibbutz and
who restored and has sustained his belief in the capacity to love, and
be loved.

Then there is his Grandma Shlomit, who took one horrified look at the
hot, dirty, smelly, raucous Palestine she arrived in as a reluctant
refugee in 1933, and pronounced: "The Levant is full of germs."

For the rest of her life she doused everything with Lysol and took
three hot baths a day to keep the germ-filled Levant at bay; she died
some 25 years later - in her bath! As if there weren't any germs in
the Europe she had escaped from, Oz comments wryly, "not to mention
all sorts of other noxious things".

There are some moments of high farce, as when Oz recounts how Menachem
Begin, former leader of the Irgun underground and hero of his staunchly
right-wing family, complained at a public meeting in Jerusalem, shortly
after Israel was born, that while the world was rushing to "arm"
the new state's Arab enemies, no one was willing to "arm"
Israel. "If only I were prime minister today," Begin declaimed,
"everyone, everyone, would be arming us! Ev-ery-one!!!"

Unfortunately, Begin, who had learnt his somewhat bombastic Hebrew
in his native Poland, used the archaic word "lezayen" for
the verb "to arm". To young Amos's ears, attuned to the much
less formal vernacular Hebrew of his native-born generation, the word
lezayen had another meaning entirely: "to fuck".

To the horror of his family, as silence descended on the hall, he burst
into uncontrollable laughter and his mortified grandfather had to drag
him out by his ear. So ended any attachment Oz might have had to his
family's right-wing political allegiances.

Much more sombre is his harrowing account of another epiphany: a childhood
visit to the home of a prominent Arab family, the Silwanis, in east
Jerusalem. The young Amos, then about eight, was sent out to play in
the garden with the children.

Conscious of his role as representative of the Jewish People Come Home
to Zion, he was determined to demonstrate to his Arab hosts - especially
the comely 12-year-old Aisha and her little brother Awwad - what a fine
fellow he was. He regaled them with his culture and erudition, reciting
the poems of Zionism's leading poets (including one of his own) before
going on to demonstrate that this New Jew could not only recite poetry,
but could climb trees, too.

"Trembling with the thrill of national representativity,"
he scaled the large mulberry tree in the Silwani garden. At the top
he found an old iron ball attached to a rusty chain. Grabbing hold of
the chain, he whirled the ball in wild circles around his head, whooping
loudly. "Now at last was muscular Judaism taking the stage, making
resplendent new Hebrew youth at the height of his powers, making everyone
who sees him tremble at his roar; like a lion among lions."

Then disaster struck. The rusty chain snapped and the heavy iron ball
hurtled earthward. It just missed smashing the skull of three-year-old
Awwad, but slammed into his foot, crushing it.

Oz remembers little of the mayhem that followed, but indelibly etched
in his consciousness was the look of "loathing, despair, horror
and flashing hatred" that the little boy's sister, Aisha, gave
him. The seed was sown of his deep and abiding revulsion for chauvinism
of any sort - that mindless, corrosive national self-assertiveness that
denies the other and crushes not only the body but the soul of victim
and perpetrator alike.

Ultimately, Oz is, above all else, a wonderfully perceptive and sensitive
chronicler of human emotion - something he can capture and convey in
a few simple words. Thus his touching description of how he reacts when
his wife Nily responds favourably to his work: "When she likes
something, she looks up from the page and gives me a certain look, and
the room gets bigger." So too, when one reads a book like this,
does the reader's.

David Bernstein is letters editor of The Age.


A Tale of Love and Darkness: A Memoir

Amos Oz

November 2004

A review

Budding romance between a young widow and a grieving pastor is nearly
crushed by the ugly rumors of a jealous parishioner. But as Christ's
love transforms lives all around them, they catch a glimpse of the second
chance only forgiveness can bring - a second chance both fear to seize.
Click here for more on To Forgive, Divine.

Both provocative and poignant, this memoir of a childhood in Jerusalem
will amuse, perplex, and sadden.

An elegiac theme runs through the work like a dark thread.
The author?s mother committed suicide when he was a teenager, prompting
his withdrawal from his father and his entry into the seductive life
of the kibbutzim. He even affected a name change after his mother?s
death, almost as though by eliminating himself, some sin would be expiated.

His mother was a fey, bright person who played words games
with her brilliant only child and encouraged him to write. His father
was an intellectual and a writer, but so emotionally closed off that
after his wife?s death he never mentioned her name again. The son learned
to speak in parables, and did indeed fulfill the destiny his mother
had mapped out for him.

From his father, the child learned order and morality.
Oz describes how on the eve of the birth of the state of Israel, in
a rare moment of tenderness, his father lay beside his eight-year-old
boy and told him in a whisper ?what some hooligans did to him and his
brother David in Odessa and what some Gentile boys did to him at his
Polish School on Vilna, and the girls joined in too.? When his Grandfather
came to school to complain, the children set upon him, too, subjecting
him to the same humiliation ?and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes?while
the teachers watched and said nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.?
From that day forward, Oz?s father promised, his son would not be bullied
just because he was a Jew. ?From tonight that?s finished here. Forever.?

His mother taught him that ?a book would never abandon
you?even it was a book you had abandoned and erased from your heart
for years and years, it would never disappoint you.? Hardworking but
oversensitive, his mother grew dreamier and less associated with reality.
Her husband?s family labeled her neurotic and selfish, causing her to
retreat even farther. Her lonely husband dared to go out on his own
in the evenings, earning the disrespect of her family. Her death is
the saddest and final page of this evocative chronicle, the moment the
reader longs to understand but never wants to experience, as Oz himself
did not.

The book leaps from Jerusalem, pre- and post-statehood,
and the final days of World War II; to pre-war Europe and the pogroms;
from the Jewish fears of offending the Gentiles to their triumph in
establishing a homeland; from a boy?s first successes and romances to
his unbearable guilt and anger at the death of his beloved mother; his
attempt to flee from the old world of intellectualism to the manly pursuits
of the kibbutz, and his redemption through writing.


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