It's a little early to be predicting that I've read my favorite book of the year, but I think this is it. My college friend Sue recommended this Israeli novelist's memoir several years ago and at last I've gotten to it. Thanks, Sue, what a treat.
Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939; his parents and extended family members fled Russia for Vilna (Poland) and eventually Jerusalem. He introduces us to his early life there and all the family and friends who came from Eastern Europe and brought their love of learning, many books, and knowledge of multiple languages. There are countless characters: his great uncle, the famous Professor Joseph Klausner who wrote countless books, his grandmother Shlomit who upon arrival in Jerusalem declared it a place full of germs and spent much of her time bathing and scrubbing herself and her possessions, and his grandfather who made himself beloved of women with his gentlemanly kindness.
Oz's memoir mixes the dramatic story of his family, the tragedies of Jewish life in the 20th century, and precise, beautiful and sometimes light-hearted descriptions. Here's a desciption of the lunch he came home to when he was in kindergarten:
Every now and then a piece of chicken made a guest appearance, sunk in rice or run aground on a sandbank of potato purée, its mast and sails adorned with parsley and a tight guard of boiled carrots with rickets-smitten squash standing around its deck. A pair of pickled cucumbers served as the flanks of this destroyer, and if you finished it all up, you were rewarded with a pink milk pudding made from powder, or a yellow jelly made from powder which we called by its French name gelée, which was only a step away from Jules Verne and the mysterious submarine Nautilus, under the command of Captain Nemo, who despaired of the whole human race and set off for the depths of his mysterious realm under the oceans and where, so I had decided, I should be joining him soon.
Then there's the heartbreak of Jewish life in the 20th century, summed up here: "When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, 'Jews go home to Palestine.' Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, 'Jews get out of Palestine.'"
His description of the night in Jerusalem when the news came through of the UN General Assembly's vote adopting the report recommending the partition of Palestine is moving. Below is a part of a very long sentence:
…our faraway street on the edge of Kerem Avraham in northern Jerusalem also roared all at once in a first terrifying shout that tore through the darkness and the buildings and trees, piercing itself, not a shout of joy, nothing like the shouts of spectators in sports grounds or excited rioting crowds, perhaps more like a scream of horror and bewilderment, a cataclysmic shout, a shout that could shift rocks, that could freeze your blood, as though all the dead who had ever died here and all those still to die had received a brief window to shout and the next moment the scream of horror was replaced by roars of joy and a medley of hoarse cries…
He recounts being reprimanded as a teenager as he and an older kibbutz member were guarding the perimeter at night. When Ephraim says the Arabs who have been displaced from their land should not be dismissed as murderers, Amos asks why he doesn't join them. Ephraim tells him he carries a gun so they won't displace him as he had been kicked out of everywhere else. "Where is the Jewish people's land if not here? Under the sea? On the moon? Or is the Jewish people the only people in the world that doesn't deserve to have a little homeland of its own?"
He tells the story of his family over the course of the book. After we have heard many stories of his early life and his parents' lives, he tells in one sentence that his mother committed suicide when he was 12 1/2 years old. He returns to fill out this event in doses interspersed with other stories. As we near the end of the book we hear more and more of this sad story. A few pages before the book ends, he tells us he has never told anyone in his life about his parents. This book seems to be a bubbling up of all that suppressed story, told as if it were always in his mind near the surface.
Two years after his mother's death over the objections of his father he joined a kibbutz and changed his name. He remained a member of Hulda kibbutz for nearly 30 years.
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, trans. Nicolas de Lange, Harcourt, 2003, 538 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.