Over the course of his long career as novelist, commentator, and political activist, no author has been so insistent as Amos Oz that his own life story be taken for the story of Israel itself. This identification reached its literary apex in Oz’s glowering memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), recently turned into a film directed by Natalie Portman. The book tells the story of Oz’s childhood against the tumultuous backdrop of the creation of the Jewish state. Fusing autobiography and national history, it marches circuitously but steadily toward its crest: the suicide of Oz’s mother, an event presented in the memoir and in various guises throughout his fiction as the dark underbelly of the Zionist dream, a ghost haunting the polity that is Israel.
And yet, perhaps despite itself, Oz’s memoir also calls this identification into question, suggesting that the source of the melancholy ambivalence out of which Oz writes is ultimately private, a personal and not a national calamity after all. And something similar is the case with Oz’s latest novel, Judas, which again is at once about and not about Israel. In contrast to his sprawling memoir, Judas is a short book. Yet this deceptively simple little fiction, recently translated (like most of Oz’s prolific output) by Nicholas de Lange, is in some ways even more divided against itself than A Tale of Love and Darkness. It, too, returns obsessively to the story of Israel’s founding. Yet that very obsessiveness suggests the pressure of urges and anxieties other than national and moral ones.
Oz sets his tale in an atmospherically conjured Jerusalem at “the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960.” His protagonist, Shmuel Ash, is an idealistic young man in his twenties, a nebbish who sports socialist pretensions and a Fidel Castro beard, but with little success in love. He answers a job posting for a boarder who will keep company with the housebound Gershom Wald, an elderly invalid who enjoys discoursing on politics, history, and human nature. The house’s other resident is Atalia Abravanel, a beautiful and foreboding woman in her forties who is the widow of Wald’s son, Micha. Two other significant characters, both deceased, loom as household ghosts: Micha, who was killed in battle in the 1948-49 War of Independence, and Atalia’s father Shealtiel, a political activist who opposed the creation of a Jewish state and was therefore ostracized by the Zionist leadership.
Shmuel moves in, learns the stories of Wald and Atalia and of the two men they mourn, and falls in love with Atalia. She dallies with him and then, as with a series of his predecessors, grows tired of his company and ejects him from the house.
To this spare frame, Oz adds the additional levels that have made the book so intriguing, and so perplexing, to critics and reviewers.
First, as the title portends, the novel is in part about a key figure in the Christian gospels. Shmuel, a stalled graduate student, has been working on a study of Jewish views of Jesus of Nazareth and Judas Iscariot. Through Shmuel, Oz thus presents the ideas of various modern Jewish thinkers on this fraught subject. They include the historian Joseph Klausner, who happens to have been Oz’s own great-uncle and who was one of many early-20th-century scholars to reclaim Jesus, on secular and nationalist grounds, as a Jewish figure: a defiant move in the face of European anti-Semitism. (For another example, see Uri Zvi Greenberg’s 1923 poem “In the Crucifix Kingdom.”)
Shmuel, however, is less interested in Jesus than in Judas, asking how this supposed traitor was moved, according to the Gospel of Matthew, to commit suicide following his betrayal of Jesus, and also why it is that the West fixed on the traitor Judas, rather than the equally Jewish Jesus, as the archetypal image of the Jew.
Second, the novel is about politics. In their conversations, Shmuel and Wald chew over moral and political questions pertaining to the founding of the Jewish state, to nationalism more generally, and to the tension between utopian dreams and realist politics. As Shmuel asks himself: is the real subject of his studies Jesus, or is it Judas, or is it “the common underlying reason for the failure of all revolutions?” We therefore look for political import in the novel’s meditations on the gospel narratives, and for new understandings of ideologues and moral prophets in its discussion of politics.
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Third, Oz shades this simple tale with an ambiguity that begs for mythic or allegorical interpretation. An otherworldly house sealed off from the rest of the world, as in some dark fairy tale? A trinity of characters in a book titled Judas? A dead father and a dead son who hover over the proceedings? Shmuel’s theft of a walking stick tipped with a silver fox’s head?
Unfortunately, as a number of readers have noted, these layers upon layers, which seem freighted with such significance, fail to cohere but lead instead into blind alleys. The archetypal symbolism that appears to attach to the characters becomes a hindrance to their credibility.
Atalia, especially, with her dangerously Oedipal allure, is yet another abstracted version of Oz’s mother: one part vampire, toying with her young male prey, one part Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, locked away and pining for a lost love, and one part divinized moon goddess, presiding over nighttime walks through Jerusalem. What she is not is a real person. “I can’t love men,” she mawkishly sermonizes Shmuel. “You’ve held the whole world in your hands for thousands of years and you’ve turned it into a horror show. A slaughterhouse. Perhaps I can just use you. Or sometimes even take pity on you and try to comfort you a little.”
The political and religious themes, meanwhile, wink at each other but never embrace. Oz fashions an interpretation of the gospel narratives that turns Judas Iscariot from the most faithless to the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples. He’s not the first to do so. But as an exploration of betrayal, this has limited resonance; even less, as a window into revolutionary politics. One is reminded a bit of Norman Mailer’s late novel, The Gospel According to the Son, in which Judas, a more ardent revolutionary than Jesus, betrays his master when he recognizes that Jesus will not overthrow the socio-economic order after all. In neither novel does the scriptural reading yield much contemporary political insight.
More telling are the political debates that constitute much of the book. At the start, Shmuel, who tapes a poster of Castro and Che Guevara to his bedroom wall, is the mouthpiece for utopian idealism, contemptuous of Israeli political leaders (Ben-Gurion, he claims, “heads a self-righteous, chauvinistic state”), while Wald is the voice of cautionary moral realism:
No, I do not believe in any kind of world reform. Not because I consider that the world is perfect as it is—certainly not, the world is crooked and grim and full of suffering—but whoever comes along to reform it soon sinks in rivers of blood.
Next, as he learns from Wald about the extreme anti-nationalism of Atalia’s father (“a world divided into hundreds of states with border crossings, barbed-wire fences, passports, flags, armies, and separate currencies seemed to him like an archaic, primitive, murderous delusion”), young Shmuel himself turns mercurially into the voice of Wald’s more reasoned Zionism. “Why,” he asks, “did Shealtiel regard the Jews as the single nation in the world who did not deserve a land of their own”?
Aside from their aimlessness, these are strangely tired political discussions, even if many people today still find it necessary to re-masticate them. Debating the legitimacy of the state of Israel 70 years after its birth is a bit like debating the messiahship of Jesus 2,000 years after his: yes, the implications haven’t lost their importance, but at this point can’t one be expected to have developed a relatively solid position on the issue?
Most striking, however, is how Shmuel and Wald’s voices merge into each other, and how the names of the characters become increasingly arbitrary labels for what seems to be a single inner monologue, or perhaps a self-interview, on the part of their creator. Indeed, their hand-wringing, circular conversations are as claustrophobic and airless as the house in which they take place. And so when Shmuel is expelled, and journeys out into the bright Israeli springtime, the feeling is of tremendous relief and release.
What is Oz up to here? It seems to me that the real engine driving Judas is neither political nor scriptural in nature, but literary. And here we might consider the name of Oz’s protagonist, starting with his surname. “[N]o, to the best of his knowledge he was not related to the well-known writer Sholem Asch” is how Oz, in an indirectly phrased comment, nods in passing to the Polish-born writer who was himself a kind of literary Judas. The bestselling Asch (1880-1957) was the most popular Yiddish writer in the world until his trilogy of novels on Christian themes, beginning in 1939 with The Nazarene, turned his Jewish readership against him.
Meanwhile, Shmuel shares his first name with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the undisputed master of modern Hebrew fiction, whose presence is so ubiquitous in Oz’s novel as to constitute a kind of literary game. From Agnon’s novel, Shira, Oz imports the comedy of academic pedantry as well as a passing reference to Jerusalem’s vanished leper colony. Balak, the unfortunate dog from Agnon’s novel Only Yesterday, trots through the pages of Judas. Oz’s nocturnal Jerusalem, bathed in moonlight and erotic yearning for the unattainable Atalia, comes to us by way of the master’s dreamlike novella “Edo and Enam.” And the novel’s dark fairy-tale structure, with its femme fatale and its denouement in which the schlemiel protagonist sets forth with stick and kit bag, echoes the Agnon story “The Lady and the Peddler.”
Oz’s protagonist thus unites in his name the transgressive Yiddish writer rejected and the faux-pious Hebrew writer canonized. In this light it becomes difficult not to see Judas as a meditation on Oz’s own status as Israel’s most famous contemporary novelist. Shmuel’s sojourn in the haunted house and his uncertain liberation at the end are suggestive less of political or religious allegory than of a writer unsure whether he can emerge once again from the rut of his past books, while the novel’s dichotomous presentation of Judas and Jesus is suggestive less of theological mysteries than of whether that same writer will be cast out of the lists like Asch or secure a Nobel prize (and have his visage gracing his nation’s currency) like Agnon.
Judas will surely continue to be celebrated in translation by readers eager for another round of Israeli spelunking into the supposed original sin of the country’s founding, undertaken by no lesser a figure than the self-anointed moral conscience of the Jewish state. Indeed, critics have taken great pains either to deny the book’s weaknesses or to present them in the kindest possible light as the result of deliberate novelistic choices. Judas, in the camouflaging words of one reviewer, “resists harmonic equilibrium”; instead, it “derives its power not from narrative action but from the din of its dialogue” (emphasis added). Another finds Oz “happily indifferent to the conventional view that letting characters speechify makes them sound like talking heads” (again, emphasis added), then rushes to quell skepticism by reassuring us that “Oz doesn’t overdo it.” (Not much.) “Plotless novels about lost young men represent a tedious subgenre of contemporary literature,” a third reviewer stipulates, correctly, only to retreat in haste: “but, naturally, Oz rises above that.”
These between-the-lines ambivalences can be put more plainly: Judas isn’t a very good book, but let’s pretend, as one critic does after giving up on its wandering conundrums, that somehow this makes it a “magnificent” one. While readers loyal to Oz’s political posturing may be pleased to take him for a misunderstood revolutionary like his Judas, and/or a sacrificial martyr like Jesus, the simpler truth is that he has become more like a gaudy icon, to be paraded around on a saint’s day and then stuck back in his niche.
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