Book Review: JUDAS, by Amos Oz

Posted: November 20, 2016 in Chat
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JUDAS, by Amos Oz, Chatto and Windus, 2014.

WARNING: Contains Spoilers.

A most interesting and intriguing novel.
It is full of story parallels, deft discussion, of sense of place and time. Amos Oz has a wonderful way with description, sense of place, with character, mood.

1
It was the winter of 1959. The setting is as much the major character as the others in the book: it is Jerusalem, just ten years after Independence.
This is the real story.

There is the story of post-graduate student Schmuel Ash, Schmuel had to leave his studies, his finances had fallen through. That is a story in itself. And then there is the matter of his girlfriend: she had left him and gone back and married her previous boyfriend.
Schmuel joined a strange household that provided board and lodging, a little income, for providing in turn company for an aged man, Gersham Wald.
It was an old house, in the extreme west of the city. Also in the house was Atalia. Atalia had married the man’s son; the son died early in the War of Independence. Her father was known as ‘the traitor’. He had been a top Zionist, a member of the council, but resigned at the outset of setting up the State of Israel, for advocating Arab friensship.
His story is most fascinating; he offered an alternative to the State, the possibility of harmony with the Arab population. It was an opportunity missed. Could it have worked?

All is speculation.

Schmuel’s dissertation topic was Jewish Views of Jesus. His research led him to believe that Judas was the only true believer in Jesus, the one and only true Christian. All the other disciples had denied him at that crucial time. All but Judas. Yet Judas was the cause for all future anti-semitism. Judas was the true believer, yet also the traitor.
Like Atalia’s father.
What is suggested here, is that it is possible her father’s ideas for co-habitation, sharing, were the true ones.
All is speculation.

Jerusalem in winter.
It rained nearly every day; it was bitterly cold at times. Schmuel walked the night streets constantly, sometimes with Atalia, often alone. They walked through Gehenna: We’re in hell, he said to her. Aren’t we always? she replied. They went up on Mount Zion to catch the sunrise, it was bitterly cold; a soldier was on guard at King David’s tomb. He had been there all night.
Shots rang out: there was always a sniper over the border hoping for a lucky hit, no matter what time of night or early morning. And there were borders everywhere in the city.
We are constantly made aware of the barbed wire, the nearness of borders, the ruined Arab villages.

There are presences, missing, but brooding constantly: the son and the father, Micha and Abravanal. And of course over all there was the living presence of David Ben-Gurion, and his vision of the Israeli State. Like the Christian Trinity.

Over all is winter, and its sense of aridity. This sense grows throughout the book: Atalia and Micha had no children; Gersham Wald’s child Micha was dead. The way he died, Atalia found out much later and by accident, was horrific; she could never shake it. Neither she nor Gersham could sleep at night afterwards.She could never have another lasting relationship. Schmuel’s own relationship, and it is hinted also with his family, had broken irreparably and thrown him back into his self-enclosedness, as epitomized by this household he had retreated into.
We see this in the Socialist groups Schmuel was a part of at the university. They would meet and have discussions at the workingmen’s café, and yet the closest they ever came to the working people a table or two away was to timidly ask for a light.
Part and parcel of all this in the novel’s context is the image of Abravanal,  Atalia’s distant and unapproachable father, whose message could have saved all, and yet who neglected his family: the universal that fails the personal.
And so we come to the present state: Gersham Wald, Schmuel’s aged companion, speculates and argues fruitlessly and endlessly with old sparring partners over the phone every day. All is arid, without fruit, without a future.
This is also a metaphor for embattled Jerusalem, surrounded by enemies. The mood only lifts once Schmuel leaves the city.

We can read this as the State of Israel itself, surrounded by enemies, without friends or allies, or  recognition. A State completely cut off from all, and friendless.
The State of Israel, 1959.
2
All through the book Atalia is described as eminently desirable, yet unattainable. She is a strong woman, a property owner, and works for her living. Is she Israel in potential, with their lost future?
This could be a criticism of the book. Atalia must always be dependent on male interest, she cannot live for herself. They flock around her; every reference to her by others and the author is coloured by this. Amos Oz is trying to write a strong independent woman character – is it the society he places her in, she is part of, or is it the author’s opinion also, that she cannot be allowed her own place in the world? Her missing partner always throws an imbalance to her existence. Is Israeli culture so inflexibly male-dominated?

On one level this is a story all about alpha males: Avaranal was ousted, and so turned bitter and retreated into himself. David Ben-Gurion won the narrative-of-the-State contest. Atalia can do little but serve the failing father.
Schmuel is an interesting foil, he is passive, and has a carer personality, he learned to his surprise. To Atalia he becomes another male to be cared for as he fell badly, and was laid up for a couple of weeks. Her response to this is not resentment, for she is intrigued by him, his passivity, and also his enthusiasm.

On another level the book is all about Big Narratives. they figure prominently. It was when Schmuel espoused his theories that his previous girlfriend had taken him to bed; it was when he told Atalia of his thesis that she responded. Avaranal and Gersham Walt were tied together not just as fathers in law, but over the theory of the State of Israel. All their fates, Micha as well, are all bound up in David Ben-Gurion’s theory of the State.

Schmuel’s thesis got to the point where he thought Judas was only the only disciple who truly believed in Christ’s divinity. He engineered the crucifixion, in Jerusalem, as incontrovertible proof. It failed, he thought.
On the level of parallels, we see here that Avaranal’s ‘dream’ of co-habitation, harmony, like the love that Christ preached, as ultimately failing also.
Which leaves them with… a moment-by-moment piecemeal arrangement, peace and war: and hoping the peace lasts longer than the fighting.
But the heart had gone out of it: on the ruined Arab village there had been attempts to build a hall. It was unfinished, restarted and again unfinished. The heart, the sense of reconstruction, had gone out of it.
3
Reading through online reviews of the book I was amazed at the intemperate language  used; it was downright vicious in places. Many clearly had no idea of the aesthetics and concerns of novel-writing, they were using their platform to hit out at the author. He was accused of being a neo-Marxist, or anti-Zionist, of giving the State of Israel a bad press, of toadying up to anti-Israeli Western media. A traitor.
That is what the book is about, that word Traitor. It can be a product of hindsight, of present actions; it can also, the book claims, have positive intent that is turned by events.

All this is very much the battened-down attitude of a State under attack: there can be no nuanced, open discussion; there can be no questioning voices.
There is a similar attitude in Russia at the current time.
These are the tactics of States still fighting for their legitimacy. How long will it take?
All the more imperative to open those discussions, questions, nuances now.

See also: Days of Ziklag, by S Yizhar, 1958.http://www.ithl.org.il/page_14274

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Comments
  1. E Tristram says:

    I loved this book; similar to you I was shocked by some of the reviews that others had posted of it. I don’t understand how people feel they have the right to be so vicious towards the author. A book about a traitor, written by a traitor? I don’t think so. This is a novel – and an outstanding one at that. I’m glad to have found someone else who agrees with my views. Thank you for your review – you write very well. 🙂

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