Today I am looking at the latest translated work from Israeli writer Amos Oz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, a writer who is habitually highlighted when the Nobel Prize in Literature is discussed, award winner galore and an advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For myself “Judas” is one of the more learned works on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, whilst narratively a simple tale, this is a book full of theological, political and character contemplations.
Our novel contains four main characters, Shmuel Ash, Atalia, Gershom Wald and Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel. Our protagonist is Shmuel Ash;
Shmuel was a stocky, bearded young man of around twenty-five, she, emotional, socialist, asthmatic, liable to veer from wild enthusiasm to disappointment and back again, His shoulders were broad, his neck was short and thick, and his fingers too were thick and short, as if they each lacked a knuckle. From every pore of Shmuel Ash’s face and neck curled wiry hairs like steel wool: this beard continued upwards till it merged with the tousled hair of his head and downwards to the curling thicket of his chest. From a distance he always seemed, summer and winter alike, to be agitated and pouring with sweat. But, close up, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that instead of a sour smell of sweat his skin somehow exuded a delicate odour of talcum powder. He would be instantly intoxicated by new ideas, provided they were wittily dressed up and involved in some paradox. But he also tended to tire quickly, possibly on account of and enlarged heart and his asthma. (p2)
Shmuel’s father is involved in an unsuccessful business deal, is declared bankrupt and can no longer support his son through University, Shmuel decides to cease his studies and seeks employment as a companion to an old man on the outskirts of the city;
An old fig tree and an arbour of vines shaded the courtyard. So dense and intertwined were their branches that even now, their leaves shed, only a handful of capering gold coins managed to filter through the canopy and flicker on the flagstones. It seemed not so much a stone courtyard as a secret pool, its surface ruffled by myriad rippling wavelets. (p13)
Shmuel is employed to provide conversation each evening with Gershom Wald
Beyond this ring of warm light, between two metal trolleys laden with books, files, folders and notebooks, an elderly man sat talking on the telephone. A plaid was draped round his shoulders like a prayer shawl. He was an ugly man, broad, corked and hunchbacked. His nose was as sharp as the beak of a thirsty bird, and the curve of his chin suggested a sickle. His fine, almost feminine, grey hair cascaded down the back of his head and covered the nape of his neck. His eyes were deep-set beneath thick craggy white eyebrows that looked like woolly frost. His bushy Einstein moustache was a mound of snow. Without interrupting his telephone call, he eyed his visitor with a penetrating, quizzical glance. His sharp chin was inclined towards his left shoulder. His left eye was screwed up while the right one was open wide, round, blue and unnaturally large. The man’s face wore a sly, amused expression as if he were winking or making a sarcastic denunciation: he seemed instantly to have understood the young man before him, as if reading his mind and understanding what he was after. A moment later he switched off the searchlight beam of his gaze, acknowledged the visitor’s presence with a nod of the head and looked away, continuing his telephonic debate all the while: (p16)
Shmuel’s “employer” is Gershom’s daughter in law, Atalia a mysterious widow, alluring to Shmeul but completely indifferent to his approaches.
The final player is Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel, removed from the machinations of the official parties for his political views on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…a Judas;
‘Are you trying to tell me that your father seriously believed that we had so much as a shadow of a chance to survive here by peaceful means? That it was possible to convince the Arabs to agree to share the land? That it is possible to obtain a homeland by means of fine words? And do you believe that too? At that time the entire progressive world supported the creation of a state for the Jewish people. Even the Communist Bloc supplied us with arms.’ (p166)
However, it is not through the simple plot here that the riches of this work are harvested, it is through the nightly discussions between Shmuel and Gershom, the writings and research of Shmuel as part of his abandoned thesis ‘The Jewish Views of Jesus’, and the debates about Judas, and his parallel Shealtiel where the heart of the novel lies.
And yet, had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity. (p73)
A work that immediately brought to mind Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, through the development of the central character of Shmuel, for me another wonderfully rich character on the world literary stage.
Alone in his attic on a winter’s night, with strong, steady rain falling on the sloping roof close to his head and gurgling in the gutters, the cypresses bowed by the westerly wind, a night bird uttering a single harsh screech, Schmuel sat bent over his papers, taking an occasional swig from the open bottle of cheap vodka that stood before him on the desk, and wrote in his notebook: (p172)
It is through the discussions and theological musings where the depth in this work is apparent, throughout there are explanations of Judas’ role in the biblical tales, the mythology surrounding the thirty pieces of silver, the crucifixion of Jesus, the final words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” and Judas’ subsequent suicide. In this novel these explanations come via the hand of Shmuel, but they are presented in simple enough terms for non-Christians, or Jews, to understand the parallels that are contained with other events within the novel.
Through Shmuel’s employment there is plenty of discourse and opportunity to allow for details about the 1948 War of Independence and the lead up and subsequent events, with numerous threads explored, no definitive view is portrayed.
This is a novel that addresses centuries old theological issues, alongside current political concerns about the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as confronting the question of being a traitor vs an idealistic true believer. A complex and thought provoking work, one I rate highly in my 2017 Man Booker International Prize rankings.
Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I would hope so, although the simple narrative may detract some readers/judges, but this is not a novel to simply keep you entertained, it is a thought provoking, complex work. Amos Oz’s history of awards certainly plays in his favour, and his shortlisting for the Prize in 2007 (when the award was given for a body of work, not a single book) could be both a positive and a negative (he lost out to Chinua Achebe from Nigeria).
Highly ranked by myself I think this is one of the under ranked dark horses for the main gong…