Amos Oz's new novel Judas embraces history, debate, and autobiography
Amos Oz: Worthy of literature’s highest honour (©Uzi Varon)
Which living writer could combine the following disparate themes in one short novel? Judas embraces a learned debate about the eponymous disciple of Jesus, seen from a Jewish rather than a Christian standpoint; an evocation of Israel’s 1948 war of independence; a reminiscence of still-divided Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60; and the no less wintry romance of a depressed student and the embittered widow of a war hero. The answer is, of course, Amos Oz.
Judas is a great novel that only Oz could have written — not just because parts of it are so obviously autobiographical. (Doubtless others are not so obvious to this reader.) The period to which he has returned in his late seventies is also the one when he met and married his wife Nily. He is about the same age as his protagonist, the asthmatic, maddeningly passive yet highly intelligent Shmuel Ash.
And it is easy to imagine the young Oz, who spent two decades living on a kibbutz, belonging to a far-left groupuscule such as Shmuel’s Socialist Renewal Group, which falls apart over allegiance to the young Marx versus the old Marx: “Among the four who split off were the two girls in the Group, without whom there was no longer any point.”
Shmuel thinks there is no longer any point in anything. His girlfriend has dumped him for a hydrologist and he has abandoned his Master’s thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus”. He has done so despite the strictures of Professor Eisenschloss, his supervisor, who makes appearances as a living embodiment of the Kantian categorical imperative, urging him to return to duty, and despite the appeals of his parents, living far away in Haifa, and his sister, even further away in Italy.
But in his predicament, hopeless but not serious, Shmuel finds an escape route. He answers an advertisement for a companion, offering board and lodging plus a stipend in return for spending five hours every evening with an elderly invalid. The latter, Gershom Wald, turns out to be a highly cultured former history teacher who lives with his daughter-in-law, Atalia. From the moment that Shmuel arrives at 17 Rabbi Elbaz Lane, with its courtyard on a desolate hillside towards the Valley of the Cross, with its broken step and his attic room up a spiral staircase, he becomes a somnambulist, mesmerised by this book-lined microcosm of Israel. There is a chilling air of melancholy and mystery around the house, which is never entirely dispelled.
There are two ghostly presences in the house, however, which lead the story back to the origins of Israel. It had belonged to Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father, once a prominent Zionist but a fierce opponent of Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and all those who sought to create a state for the Jewish people. The other spectre is of Micha, Atalia’s husband and Wald’s only son, who was killed in the 1948 war that gave birth to the Jewish state. Neither of the bereaved has ever come to terms with their grief, but live in a kind of suspended animation.
Smitten by the beautiful but embittered Atalia, Shmuel tries to discover the truth of what happened to the two dead men. Abravanel, it emerges, had a vision of Jews and Arabs living side by side. For advocating this “authentic” Zionism, he was seen as a traitor, excluded from the leadership and died as an outcast. His daughter, true to his legacy, sees Israel as based on injustice.
It is here that the figure of Judas Iscariot becomes central to the story. Shmuel is convinced that Judas was the real founder of Christianity, the most loyal of all the disciples and the only one who really believed that Jesus was the Son of God. His suicide was the result of disillusionment when Jesus died on the cross. The Christian view of Judas becomes enmeshed with the Jewish view of Jesus: both are seen as traitors. For Shmuel “the kiss of Judas, the most famous kiss in history, was surely not a traitor’s kiss.” Shmuel is thus led to consider the nature of betrayal itself. “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loath change,” he says. “Abravanel had a beautiful dream, and because of his dream some people called him a traitor.” His heirs, the Peace Now activists led by Amos Oz, are seen by many Israelis as having betrayed the Zionist cause.
Amos Oz, a veteran of two of Israel’s wars, has long been an advocate of a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders. He is reviled for seeking reconciliation even with Palestinian terrorists. So Judas is, among other things, his fictional apologia pro vita sua, his reply to his accusers. Yet its conclusion is ambiguous: Wald was never persuaded by Abravanel and Shmuel is not necessarily a convert either. Nor are the Palestinians idealised; in so far as they appear, it is as cruel killers.
Oz is no naive peacenik. I recall listening to him once, after a dinner chez George Weidenfeld, defending the Israeli nuclear deterrent against an angry Harold Pinter. Brilliantly translated by Nicholas de Lange in close collaboration with the author, Judas is perhaps his finest work. Whether or not it is his swansong, it should win Amos Oz the ultimate accolade. But by far the most likely reason why he has not won the Nobel Prize already is the fact that he is an Israeli.