A Tale of Love and Darkness

by Amos Oz
560 pages,
ISBN: 015603252X

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Pieces of Love and Darkness
by Michael Greenstein

Amos Oz's detailed memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is as compelling as any of his novels, for the friends and family members we meet are portrayed as if they were characters plucked from the pages of Chekhov and Tolstoy before being transported to the Land of Israel. The opening "underground" passage recalls Dostoevsky and Kafka: "I was born and bred in a tiny, low-ceilinged, ground-floor flat. My parents slept on a sofa bed that filled their room almost from wall to wall when it was opened up each evening." From these hermetic surroundings the young Oz ventures out into the larger world of Jerusalem, kibbutz Hulda, and the broader past of Eastern Europe.
An only child in this book-filled flat, young Amos is exposed in equal measure to the scholarly pursuits of his father (who cannot handle a gun properly or grow vegetables in his garden) and the imaginative flights of his mother, who ultimately succumbs to suicide after years of suffering from depression. Politics and literature pervade his childhood: his conservative Jerusalem family considers Ben Gurion too left-wing, but Oz's politics change dramatically as he comes of age. In the early years we are also reminded of the gap between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and of the ordeal of making a telephone call between the two cities. Once every few months the family would arrange an exact time at the local pharmacy to make the long-distance call, the adults speaking in Russian when they didn't want him to understand delicate subjects.
The primitive conditions in Israel bother his grandmother, Shlomit, who arrives in Jerusalem from Vilna in 1933 and declares that the Levant is full of germs. She spends the rest of her life disinfecting the Promised Land. Oz unlocks her antiseptic chastity belt in one long sentence that uncovers not only family secrets but also the transition from cultivated Europe to raw Israel: "Or maybe it was neither the hygiene nor her desires nor the fear of her desires that killed her but her secret anger at this fear, a suppressed, malignant anger, like an unlanced boil, anger at her own body, at her own longings, and also a deeper anger, at the very revulsion these longings gave rise to, a murky, poisonous anger directed both at the prisoner and at her jailor, years and years of secret mourning for the ceaseless passage of desolate time and the shrivelling of her body and the desires of that body, the desires, laundered and cleansed and scraped and disinfected and boiled a thousand times, for that Levant, filthy, sweaty, bestial, exciting to the point of swooning, but swarming with germs." Part Talmudic, part Freudian, Oz's teeming prose is ultimately novelistic, swooning and swarming with Levantine style.
The young Oz visits Agnon's house in Jerusalem across the road from his uncle, Joseph Klausner, a professor at the Hebrew University. Another uncle, David Klausner, a specialist in comparative literature, believed in European culture, only to perish at the hands of the Nazis. Despite the cries of "Yid, go to Palestine," Uncle David "refused to consider solemn Catholic anti-Semitism echoing among the stone vaults of high cathedrals, or coldly lethal Protestant anti-Semitism, German racialism, Austrian murderousness, Polish Jew-hatred, Lithuanian, Hungarian, or French cruelty, Ukrainian, Romanian, Russian and Croatian love of pogroms, Belgian, Dutch, British, Irish and Scandinavian mistrust of Jews." In hindsight, the Zionist sees the varieties of writing on European walls all too clearly, and both condemns and sympathises with those Jews who were gullible enough to believe in the saving grace of high culture.
What ultimately makes Oz's "tale" so satisfying is his bittersweet blend of love and darkness. His ninety-three-year-old grandfather imparts sexual wisdom to the young boy, telling him that in some ways women are the same as men, in other ways different. "'But you know what? In which ways a woman is just like us and in which ways she is different-nu, on this,' he concluded, rising from his chair, 'I am still working'." And his grandson concludes: "He was ninety-three, and he may well have continued to 'work' on the question to the end of his days. I am still working on it myself." But young Amos is equally busy arranging toy models of soldiers battling British troops out of Palestine and defending against Arab intruders.
There are charming anecdotes about his schooling in Jerusalem as well as his traumatic visit to an Arab family in East Jerusalem. Through historic dialectic he summarises Arab-Jewish relations: "The Europe that abused, humiliated and oppressed the Arabs by means of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and repression is the same Europe that oppressed and persecuted the Jews, and eventually allowed or even helped the Germans to root them out of every corner of the continent and murder almost all of them. But when the Arabs look at us they see not a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East-in Zionist guise this time-to exploit, evict and oppress all over again. Whereas when we look at them we do not see fellow victims either, brothers in adversity, but somehow we see pogrom-making Cossacks, bloodthirsty antisemites, Nazis in disguise, as though our European persecutors have reappeared here in the Land of Israel, put keffiyehs on their heads and grown moustaches."
Oz gives us moving accounts of Israelis listening to their radios late into the night during the United Nations vote which establishes the State of Israel, and which is immediately followed by the invasion of Arab armies. He also recounts his rejection of Begin and right-wing Israeli politics, much to the dismay of his family. His brief meeting with Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv is equally dramatic.
The novelist gives us insights into his creative process, as he responds to outward signs and gestures of people in cafTs. "How dazzlingly rich the kaleidoscope of plots and stories I can weave from these fragments!" Oz weaves his web, paints avenues and parks, captures all in his invisible paparazzi camera. "To this day I pickpocket in this way. Especially from strangers. Especially in busy places." In the supermarket the cashier raises her voice "in an accent that is not exactly Russian, but perhaps comes from one of the Central Asian republics? And I'm already in Samarkand, in beautiful Bukhara: Bactrian camels, pink-stone mosques, round prayer halls with sensual domes and soft, deep carpets accompany me out into the street with my shopping." Oz's transcendent romanticism blankets the Middle East.
On the mystery of death, Oz studies the passings of Gershom Scholem and his friend Hugo Bergman. "Bergman too knows now. So does Kafka. So do my mother and father. And their friends and acquaintances and most of the men and women in those cafTs, both those I used to tell myself stories about and those who are completely forgotten. They all know now. Some day we shall know too. And in the meantime we shall continue to gather little details. Just in case."
Amos Oz gathers many little and large details of love and darkness. Despite occasional repetitions and the odd word or two in Nicholas de Lange's otherwise remarkable translation, this book contains a myriad of riches.

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