Amos Oz, Israel’s best-known contemporary novelist, has written a memoir of a childhood spent in the last days of the British Mandate and the first days of the Jewish state which in its sheer literary force outstrips even the richest of his novels. Some of this power derives from the prose itself–brooding, lyric, even incantatory–and from sentences engorged with emotion and reminiscence. But most of A Tale of Love and Darkness’s energy is generated by Oz’s elegant use of the friction between the personal and the political.
On one level, the new book is an affecting family portrait that holds within it, a lá Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, a depiction of the artist as a young man. This is the “love” of the title. Oz first introduces his grandparents, disappointed Europhiles who fled to Palestine in 1933, where they came to idolize Menachem Begin and to revile “the corrupt Labor Party and its defeatist, collaborationist leaders.” They settled in a Jerusalem that teemed with all manner of hyperarticulate, multilingual talkers: poets, rabbis, world-reformers, apocalypticists, brilliant refugee scholars.
One of these scholars is Oz’s father, Arieh, a frustrated bibliographer at the newly founded national library who had always yearned “to plow the furrows of the national spirit and make the new Hebrew culture bloom.” He read 16 or 17 languages, and always stood poised to release a “torrent of allusions, associations, connotations, and wordplays.”
Oz’s mother, Fania, on the other hand, is melancholic and withdrawn and often silent. But with her strange, nighttime stories of demons and miracles she unfolded before her son “an exciting fan of words, as though she were picking me up in her arms and raising me higher and higher to reveal vertiginous heights of language.” She ended her own life at age 38, three months before her son’s bar mitzvah. “I have the feeling,” Oz says, “that my mother wanted me to grow up to express the things that she had been unable to express.”
Soon the imperative to express what could no longer be expressed joined with the imperatives to remember and to survive, and Oz became a “word child” who wanted “to grow up to be a book.” Books, the boy reasoned, seemed more permanent than people.
Oz’s memoir, like much of his fiction, is obsessed with that which lies outside the boundaries of familiar territory. Sometimes, the obsession runs in the direction of idealization, as it did in young Amos’s infatuation with Israel’s kibbutznik pioneers. “They take our miserable human clay and mold it into a fighting nation,” he writes. “I secretly dreamed that one day they would take me with them and make me into a fighting nation too. That my life too would become a new song.” Soon enough, he acted out his dream. “A couple of years after my mother’s death, I killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem, changed my name [from Klausner to Oz, Hebrew for ‘strength’], and went on my own to Kibbutz Hulda,” where for the next 30 years he worked, and, despite his resolution to quit, wrote.
More often, however, that which lies outside takes on an unseen, menacing presence: the howling jackals and deep darkness beyond the kibbutz perimeter that Oz patrols, but most of all the very real threat to the fledgling state’s existence and the painful costs of its birth. This is the “darkness” of the title, and here we come to the book’s second level, and its true subtlety. Oz drenches his intimate familial story in politics–life in Israel, after all, has always been politics-soaked–and deftly shades in a picture of how the national fate encroached on private experience.
With astonishing vividness, Oz conjures his memories of his early sense of identification with the Jewish people and its defenders; of the siege and bombardment of Jerusalem by Arab forces, when up to 25 people found shelter in his family’s tiny, dark basement apartment and when his babysitter was cut down by a sniper; and of the fear that the state would be crushed days after its birth and that he would have nowhere to go.
In the book’s most stirring passage, Oz describes the tense gathering of his entire neighborhood around a single radio set on the evening of November 29, 1947, waiting to hear the results of the U.N. General Assembly vote on a resolution that called for the creation of two independent states in Palestine. The announcement that it had been approved–the first international recognition of the Jews’ right to an independent homeland–was swallowed up in the crowd’s excited roar, jostling dances and joyful weeping. Oz remembers that as he at last got into bed, his father lay beside him and stroked his head, whispering to his son of his humiliations at the hands of the bullies in Vilna and Odessa, and of the meaning of what they had heard that night. “I reached out sleepily to touch his face, just below his high forehead, and all of a sudden instead of his glasses my fingers met tears. Never in my life, before or after that night, not even when my mother died, did I see my father cry.” Once again, the national becomes intimate.
Finally, Oz tells of the night in April 1948 during which 78 professors, doctors, nurses, and students were shot and burned alive on their way to Mount Scopus by Arab ambushers as the British forces stood by and watched. Oz’s father had intended to be on that convoy, and had missed it only by chance.
Almost exactly 56 years later, I am writing these words not far from where the massacre took place, in my apartment on the Street of the Seventy-Eight, which connects Prophets Street and Paratroopers Street, and I am thankful for the confluence of memory, vision, and courage that Amos Oz has let me see and hear more keenly.
–Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is associate editor of Azure.