Monday 27 February 2017

Oz tantalises with heady mix of politics and lust

Fiction: Judas, Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange), Chatto and Windus, hdbk, 288 pages, £18.99

Anthony Cummins

Nothing lost in translation: Though it was first published in Hebrew two years ago, Judas reads very well in the English of Amos Oz's long-time translator, Nicholas de Lange
Nothing lost in translation: Though it was first published in Hebrew two years ago, Judas reads very well in the English of Amos Oz's long-time translator, Nicholas de Lange
Amos Oz's 'Judas'.

The latest novel by Israeli writer Amos Oz is an intricate tale of politics, lust - and biblical revisionism. Set in Jerusalem in the late 1950s, it unfolds from the point of view of Shmuel, a student down on his luck: his girlfriend has left him to marry her ex-boyfriend and his parents can no longer afford to fund his graduate thesis on Jewish views of Jesus.

He is about to leave town in despair, when he spots an advert for an attic room available rent-free to a humanities student willing to spend their evenings in conversation with an elderly invalid named Gershom.

Gershom lives to the west of the city near the ruins of an Arab village evacuated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed Israel's declaration of independence.

Other young men have answered his request for company but never lasted long, which may have something to do with Atalia, the aloof middle-aged woman who shares his house. She is the daughter of a prominent pacifist politician condemned in his lifetime as a traitor for opposing the creation of the Israeli state on the grounds that Jewish and Muslim Arab communities should "exist side by side".

Much of Judas unfolds as an exchange of views between these three characters about the actions of a state that Shmuel describes as "self-righteous" and "chauvinistic". The book's energy comes from a kind of back-and-forth disputation in which no position is allowed to stand without complication.

Shmuel - whose answer to even the most innocuous question is often both "yes" and "no" - advocates peace but defends the 1948 war on the grounds that it wouldn't have been possible "to convince the Arabs to agree to share the land".

And for good reason, he says: "You tell me if there is any other people in this world who would welcome with open arms an incursion of... millions of strangers, landing from far away with the weird claim that their holy scriptures... promise this whole land to them and to them alone?"

Gershom's perspective on the issue is coloured by the death of his son while fighting in 1948; at the time, Gershom felt the conflict was "sacred", but now he is less sure: "I programmed him. Not just me. All of us."

Atalia, for her part, advocates the views of her pacifist father, while telling us that he neglected her and abused his wife - an undeveloped detail that serves purely to muddy the picture.

When war isn't the issue, it's the Bible, as Shmuel talks Gershom through his abandoned thesis. He wants to write a revisionist take on the figure of Judas, making much of the idea that 30 pieces of silver wasn't a plausibly sufficient sum to sway a reputed landowner.

For Shmuel, Judas is Jesus's most fervent believer - the apostle who took his death hardest and the only one structurally vital to the foundation of Christianity.

Much of what Shmuel says echoes things Oz has said in interviews. His interest in complicating the idea of what a traitor is - more visionary than back-stabber - partly answers the flak he has taken in Israel for advocating a two-state solution and withdrawal from the occupied territories.

If the novel sometimes feels reverse-engineered to defend this position, it isn't a treatise. Another strand of the novel concerns Shmuel's infatuation with Atalia, whose chest gets a fair bit of narrative attention. Oz was once nominated for the Bad Sex award and it's not entirely a surprise when she brushes Shmuel's crotch accidentally-on-purpose while treating him for a fever - an episode that heralds some of the novel's weaker passages even as the theme of sentimental education brings relief from politico-religious argument.

First published in Hebrew two years ago, Judas reads very well in the English of Oz's long-time translator Nicholas de Lange. It's slow-moving - the sort of novel in which time is spent describing the protagonist watching the play of light coming through a shutter - but rich in material to grapple with.

Oz engages with urgent questions while retaining his right as a novelist to fight shy of answers: it's a mark of his achievement that the result isn't frustrating but tantalising.

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