AMOS OZ R.I.P. (obit from The Guardian)

On Friday afternoon, a text arrived from Israel letting me know of the death of Amos Oz, hailed for decades as that country’s greatest novelist. “The last, best voice of an Israel that is all but gone,” it read.

Oz himself would doubtless have found a way to wave aside such talk, dismissing it as melodramatic. But there’s truth in it. For he was indeed the embodiment of a particular Israel, one that dominated in the first years of the state’s life but which has steadily receded to the margins.

To his internal critics, he was the face of the mainly-Ashkenazi, European Jewish elite that built the country, a bleeding-heart liberal constantly scolding the nation for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a founder of the Peace Now movement who never stopped demanding his fellow Israelis behave more wisely and more justly. More than once he was denounced as a traitor, an insult he once told me he regarded as nothing less than “a badge of honour”, putting him in the same company as Jeremiah, Abraham Lincoln and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Outside the country, however, he could make diaspora Jewish audiences swoon; they saw him as a pin-up for the Israel of their dreams. Ruggedly handsome, his face battle-scarred by service in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars, he could have been a model of the “new Jew” the first Zionists longed to forge in the Mediterranean sun. They wanted the new Israeli to be a soldier, farmer and poet. Oz was all three, a member of Kibbutz Hulda where he took his turn picking fruit and washing dishes, turning over the proceeds of his novels to the collective coffers.

In a way, that man was Oz’s first invented character. He was not born an Oz, but a Klausner, growing up not on a kibbutz, but in Jerusalem. His father was a scholar and librarian; the future novelist was raised in what he called “a house full of footnotes”. He fled to the kibbutz aged 15, renaming himself Oz – Hebrew for strength.

The trigger for that escape and reinvention may well have been the suicide of his mother, Fania, when Amos was just 12. Indeed, that event haunted Oz’s fiction. When we met in 2001, he told me that it was the mystery he had spent his life, and his books, “trying to decode”. He confronted it most explicitly in what may well be his finest work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a novelistic memoir thought to be the biggest-selling literary work in Israeli history.

Throughout Oz’s fiction, the same motifs recur: interlocking love triangles, oedipal longings, unspoken desires, often attached to a protagonist paralysed into inaction and a woman out of reach. A mystery might linger – perhaps a buried scandal, related to the country’s recent past. They are quiet, but intensely evocative stories, full of both the intimacy of relationships and of place, especially the Jerusalem of the author’s youth.

Yet Oz’s novels were fated to be read as manifestos, each one assumed to be a veiled address on the state of the nation. It was not abnormal for Shimon Peres to review an Oz novel; Peres was only one of several Israeli prime ministers known to summon the novelist for what he called “a late night tête-à-tête”. Part of that was what Oz described as “the Judeo-Slavonic tradition”, which insisted a novelist also play the role of prophet, telling the tribe where they were going wrong. Oz chafed against that a bit, once complaining to me that, “No one expected Virginia Woolf to write about the Munich agreement, but everyone assumes my novels are parables about the new intifada.”

But part of it was his own fault, because Oz had a twin career as an essayist and polemicist. He was one of a group of young writers to edit an anthology immediately after the six-day war of 1967 – they called it The Seventh Day – which argued that Israel should immediately give up the land it had won in the West Bank and Gaza, and seek the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. That was an outlandishly radical stance at the time, but within three decades it would become the international consensus. Oz never abandoned it.

His great gift was to express complex moral ideas through compelling metaphor, even in his second language of English. He would argue that after the Holocaust the Jews were a drowning man: they therefore had the right to grab hold of a piece of driftwood, even if it meant forcing another man, the Palestinians, to share it. What they did not have was the right to grab the entire piece of wood and force the other man into the sea – which is what Israel had done in 1967. He would say that Jews and Palestinians both understood that a two-state solution was necessary, the problem lay with their leaders: “The patient is ready for the operation,” he wrote. “But the surgeons are cowards.”

Some found him hard to categorise. In Israel, he was a trenchant critic and dissenter. Outside, he was a fierce defender of his country with little patience for those who could not understand the Jewish need for a home of their own. If he had an ideology, it was hostility to fanaticism and a belief in compromise. He believed that compromise was too often seen “as weakness, as pitiful surrender”. Whereas, he wrote, “in the lives of families, neighbours and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life”. The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity, he argued. “The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”

Oz was garlanded with prizes and adoring audiences in Europe especially – his essay How to Cure a Fanatic is taught in Swedish schools – and he was often mentioned as a possible Nobel contender. In Israel, he continued to enjoy a large and attentive readership. But his views, which once reflected those of half of the population, became ever more marginal in his own land. The peace constituency shrank; fewer Israelis rallied to his message of enlightened compromise.

But he never lost his belief that the story of Israel and Palestine would end with resolution. Like so many before him in that part of the world, he insisted the promised land lay ahead – even if he would not live to see it.

 

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