A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz: often maddening but brilliant

A Tale of Love and Darkness by [Amos Oz]

This is the kind of “modern classic” which cannot be read quickly. One simply has to “go with the flow”. At first I was so overwhelmed by this vivid evocation of a small boy growing up in 1940s Jerusalem when Hitler was still a looming menace in the Europe his family had felt forced to leave that I recommended it for a book group to complement “Mornings in Jenin”, the moving and informative memoir of a Palestinian childhood by Susan Abulhawa, and “East West Street – the forensic analysis of the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity” by Philippe Sands.

Only a few chapters later, I was regretting my decision, having realised that my Kindle concealed the 528 page tome swollen with repetition as the storyline swirled in all directions round the stones of memory, burdened with factual detail of at times mind-numbing tedium, including lists which could never be confined to two or three examples when twenty-seven came to mind. A particular low point for me was the description of the lengthy walk to his great-uncle’s house, forcing the reader to consider every lamp-post and cracked paving stone en route. Admittedly, this captures how very long a walk may seem seem to a small child, and how every detail becomes engraved effortlessly on the mind through sheer familiarity.

It could also be that the Hebrew in which this was originally written lends itself to this kind of flowery excess which at times sits uneasily in the the brilliant and it seems painstakingly accurate English translation by Nicholas De Lange. Despite considering giving up, I am very glad to have persisted, since so much of this book is rich in anecdote and insights, combining poignancy with humour, and a strong underlying thread of irony and self-mockery. As a reader with a strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause and little patience for the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-semitism, this book helped me to understand the viewpoint of the settlers who formed the new state of Israel, particularly after the bloodbath and privations which followed the Arab uprising against the UN ruling that Israel had the right to be established 167 days later in in 1948.

I could accept the fact that, despite his precocious understanding, remarkable powers of observation and recall, there is no way much of the detail from his childhood, including his father’s definition of words, could not have been embellished or researched years later to verify the facts. As a twelve-year-old, did Amos really disrupt a speech to a large audience by Menachem Begin with his hysterical laughter over the leader’s unwise use of the word “arm” which had in Hebrew an embarrassing double meaning? Yet even if it contains a strong dose of “faction” at times, this novel has an undeniable authenticity when it comes to describing feelings and motivations.
I enjoyed some of the humorous moments, even if they highlighted his parents’ lack of understanding of their imaginative young son: fascinated by the carp kept in the bath until ready to be cooked, he tried to provide it with a bit of variety by filling the bath with “islands, straits, headlands and sandbanks” made from kitchen utensils, to be discovered by his bemused parents in a Buddha-like trance trying to see the world through the eyes of a fish.

The pace quickened in coverage of the years following the shock of his mother’s suicide, in which he was obliged to grow up quickly. His conflicting emotions of anger that she could have abandoned him, guilt that he must have been somehow to blame are conveyed with a moving, vivid power, yet the author has also identified the probable true causes, including the trauma of his mother being driven out of a once comfortable life in Ukraine, full of promise, forced to leave behind friends and relatives who perished in pogroms, and the disappointment of her narrow, impoverished life in Jerusalem, with a well-intentioned but insufferably tedious pedant of a husband. We see how the adolescent Amos “saw through” some of the prejudices of his social group, rejected both their reverence for Menachem Begin and the academic life which his father hoped he would follow and went off to join a kibbutz inhabited by the down-to-earth, muscular left-wing pioneers he had always admired. Here he was given food for thought by the older man who accepted sentry duty on the lookout for attacks from aggrieved Palestinians, while fully understanding their point of view over being dispossessed of their land.

I believe it would have been a greater work if more ruthlessly edited, but the author’s habit of circling a topic, analysing it, dropping it to return later, is all part of his attempt to return to a past he may not have considered for years and to make sense of it – essential aspects of good autobiography.

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