Judas – Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


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…


A Horse Walks Into A Bar – David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize


Unfortunately, I am going to have to plead ignorance of metaphor or political reference for this book. Although I am not, by any means, an expert on Israel histories, or the seaside city of Netanya, I did spend a little time researching the recent histories to see if there was a parallel to David Grossman’s book, all to no avail. I’m sure others will be able to point out my ignorance and feel free to add to the comments below if you have a revelation I simply missed.

Therefore, I am presenting my view on this novel based purely on the narrative presented.

The novel takes place over the course of a single evening, in a nightclub in Netanya, Israel. Dovale Gee is a 57-year-old depressed stand-up comedy performer who is giving a “show”, our narrator, is a childhood acquaintance who has been asked to attend, observe the show and report back on what he sees.

A novel that uses manipulative dialogue, mixing (poor) stand-up humour with a reflective manipulative dialogue, it is a journey into the mind of two middle-aged men:

How did he do that? I wonder. How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into his hostages? (pp57)

After fifty-nine pages of setting up the awkward situation, our comic declares that he’s going to give us his life story. This divides the audience, a number wanting to hear, witness, his unravelling, a number turning on him, they’ve paid for a comedy show, not a personal outpouring.

As Dovale Gee opens his souls on stage, learning more about himself in the process, the other, our narrator, a retired judge, is also learning more about himself;

So how do I make sense of this? How do I explain the fact that I – with my twenty-five years of experience observing and listening, being attentive to every clue – was so blind to his condition, so self-absorbed? How did his frenetic chatter and nervous jokes affect me the way strobe lights affect an epileptic? How did I keep turning inwards, to my own life?

And how could it be that he, in his state, ultimately gave me what all the books I read and the movies I watched and the consolations offered by friends and relatives these past three years did not do for me? (pp71)

Reading this novel is akin to being a member of the audience, slowly watching Dovale unravel is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

There’s been a rustle in the audience for a few moments. It’s hard to tell exactly where it’s coming from. Almost everyone I look at seems fascinated by the story and by the storyteller – fascinated despite themselves, perhaps, sometimes with an expression of aversion, even terror. Yet there is a hum, as if from a distant hive, that has been rising from the crowd for a few minutes. (pp143)

On face value this novel is an exploration of two men, who have chosen different paths, both hitting middle-age and reflecting upon their lack of achievements, their shallow lives, a time of regret. Without spoilers, it is difficult to reveal too much about these lives that diverge and then meet again.

There is another childhood “friend” in the audience, adding a little reality and prompting further reflection on behalf of the comic, leading me to believe that there is an underlying metaphorical meaning to this work. Whether it is about a nation that is motherless/fatherless, a nation that distracts itself from the realities of the everyday by using humour, or simply an inability to connect, not having enough understanding of the intricacies of Israeli history means the story felt a little empty for me.

A book that is worth persisting with, simply to see the degeneration of the main character, it is not a work I would have chosen to add to my bulging bookshelves.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I don’t think so, whilst readable and not overly difficult, personally it lacked a “click” that made me stand up and take notice, I think it will be one of the longlist to drop by the wayside come 20 April when the shortlist is announced.

Moods – Yoel Hoffmann (translated by Peter Cole) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

A few years ago I bought a very colourful, heavy book called “Buddhist Offerings 365 Days” a 750 page book with a short Buddhist quote and a colour photograph (generally from Tibet) for each day of the year. The intention was to read and reflect on the quote each day, one of those grandiose ideas that lasts a week or two, however I do revisit the book from time to time for a timely quote or two, the first quote happens to be today’s (10 June), the others are just random choices:

Every event, every situation in which you may find yourself has a positive value,
even the dramas, even the tragedies, even the thunderbolt from a calm sky.
Arnaud Desjardins
It is our mind, and that alone, that chains us or sets us free.
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Usually we think that brave people have no fear.
The truth is that they are intimate with fear.
Pema Chödrön
Like all reflective quotes the act of pondering what is deemed as ancient wisdom permeates and can leave you with a feeling of becoming wise simply by contemplating somebody else’s musings. Unlike a novel, or even a short story, the very short form can leave itself open to many interpretations and the relationship between the writer and the reader is more along the lines of a passing “punch in the face” (immediate and extreme but quickly forgotten) or, at the other extreme, a shadowy brush that somehow lingers for longer than the relationship itself and comes back to haunt you when least expected.
Yoel Hoffmann’s “Moods” (translated by Peter Cole) is made up of 191 short musings on human emotions…moods. And each and every section impacts the reader in different ways, reflecting moods, emotions, temperaments.
In the room, the French woman held out a hand (one of the two she had) and took the thousand-franc bill, as one takes the wine and wafer from a priest. (from [5])
A forty-watt bulb (elsewhere I’ve called it an electric pear) lit up the bed but the picture of the Virgin (and Child) stood outside the cone of light like an omen. (from [6])
A book that would have been extremely difficult to translate with references to sounds, specific words, iambic, for example, taken from [28]
In Japanese the back is senaka. Senaka, we think, is the perfect word for it. More accurate than for instance, back, or Rücken.
However you really need to look at the Kanji characters for the word “senaka” to understand the perfection of the word…I’ve replicated it here… 背中
A stunning work, each of the 191 sections being shards of a broken mirror, they capture the everyday moments, the obscure, the memories, the reflections of a small fragment of a life, you do not have the full picture a full picture is not able to be formed. Don’t try to decipher the collection, just like you cannot decipher human existence;
This book is a book of moods. We could call it The Book of Moods.
Now we’re filled with love, and now it’s hatred. Sometimes we hate things we’ve loved or love things we’ve hated, and there is no end to it. (from [54])
An emotional rollercoaster moving through a raft of “moods” within a single page, this is not a book you can read in a single setting, a book that you need to contemplate, allow it to inhabit your core, chew over, re-read, meditate upon the concepts. A Zen master who speaks Hebrew? Hoffmann is a professor of Japanese poetry, Buddhism and philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel, with his translation of “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” being released later this year as well as compiling, editing and commentating on the collection “Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death”. With six other books published by New Directions since 1998 I feel inadequate that I haven’t discovered his work before now!

It is not only the everyday that is contemplated or explored here, we also have musings on the art of writing itself;
We’re asking ourselves what the point of this book is or of books in general.
We’ve never seen books classified by genre. That is, we’ve seen them classified, but not correctly. What’s the point of classifying books as fiction or contemplative literature, for instance, when fiction is part and parcel of contemplation and contemplation is entirely a matter of fiction?
Or take, for instance, science books. These aren’t stories? Accurate ones. But stories nonetheless. Or the distinction between biographies and novels. Is there a biography that isn’t a novel? Or a novel that isn’t the story of a life?
If book are going to be classified by genre, it should be done in an entirely different manner. First, once has to distinguish between happy books and sad books. Not books that make one happy or make one sad. Happy books, plain and simple. A book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes. (from [114])
As an aside this book is classified as 1. Psychological fiction. 2. Experimental fiction, Jewish.
One of the standouts of the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, a book that I thought would be in serious contention for the main prize (don’t get me wrong Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a fine work indeed and a worthy winner, in my eyes this work would have caused a few debates amongst the judges), one that any readers of “on edge” or “new” fiction should go out of their way to read. I’ll stop with the classifications now, “what’s the point”?

The shards of the broken mirror are scattered, don’t expect a non-corrugated journey, these shards scattered like heavenly bodies, like “uncut diamonds scattered about on a large table at the polishing workshop”, but “however you put it, the shards of things too are whole in their way.”

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Lies, First Person – Gail Hareven (translated by Dalya Bilu)

I have absolutely no idea why I put this work to one side when it arrived on my doorstep in February this year. Maybe the blurb on the back cover talking about “Jewish diaspora”,  and “Hitler” simply didn’t appeal right then, maybe I was simply snowed under. I can tell you that I am disappointed in myself for not picking this book up earlier, it is the highlight of my Women In Translation Month this year.

To make things easier, I’ll start with the plot, our narrator, Elinor, is a writer, and she writes a newspaper column from the viewpoint of the fictional Alice (from Alaska), her column focuses on Jerusalem, everything through the eyes of somebody who is awestruck, she came here to paint the light. All the sordid details are left aside as Alice wonders at her colourful, rich surroundings.
Elinor had a tough upbringing, living in a hotel with her prescription drug addicted mother, her ineffectual father and her older sister Elisheva, but more on her later.
Very early on, as a reader we start to question ourselves, are we reading Elinor here or are we reading Alice?
My pigtail-sucking Alice is a perfect idiot and a chronic faker. She isn’t capable of producing a single straightforward sentence, and her description of my childhood is, of course, completely false. That’s what she’s like, that’s how I created her, and I take full responsibility for her falsifications and for the small pleasures they afforded me.
But what about my own account? Is it truer? More reliable? Was my childhood really as grim as I describe it? Were the no moments of grace in it? No dewy lawns of happiness?
But back to the plot, Elinor is contacted by her Uncle Aaron Gotthilf, as he is coming to visit Jerusalem to apologise for his controversial book “Hitler, First Person”. A work where he attempted to inhabit the mind of Hitler, a work he wrote whilst staying with Elinor, her mother, father and sister at their hotel when our narrator was a child, a time when Aaron continually raped Elinor’s older sister Elisheva.
Elinor decides that she must visit her sister in the USA to warn her that Gotthilf has found her and may find her sister. Elinor and Elisheva are somewhat estranged but not after we learn of Elinor being the only family member to believe the rape stories and nursing her sister after a mental breakdown. So a visit to see her after all these years is going to open up a lot of old wounds. By the way, Elinor and her ideal husband Oded have to grown up children, who also live in the USA, time for a visit.
Two days before the flight, when I was downtown making final arrangements, I suddenly changed direction and completely cast off the illusion of the tourist vacation. In a last minute decision I went up to the men’s office, and after greeting the secretary, without waiting to hang up my coat – I slipped into the library.
When I left the house to do some last minute shopping for the trip, I had no idea that I was about to do an about-face, no such plan entered my mind, and only when I was standing in a children’s boutique to choose one more cute garment for my niece, I was suddenly overtaken by a recognition of what was really ahead of us. Suddenly I couldn’t stand the illusion of sweetness and light and the pretense. Things are not what they seem, and collaboration with deceivers is a crime.
I left the pile of sweet little dresses and blouses on the counter, and got ready to prepare myself – and perhaps also my husband – to confront reality. I had been cocooned enough, I had let him cocoon me enough, and I couldn’t carry on like this.
Elinor meets with her sister, hears of her tale towards “wellness” and it appears as though we are heading towards a nice happy ending… but are we?
We were already next to the care when four heads rose in unison at the sound of a screech in the sky. A flock of geese flew over us in an arrowhead formation, and pierced me with a superstitious dread that rose in a flash from my tailbone to the bottom of my skull. The wild geese flapped heavy wings, and their screeching seemed to announce some curse to come. One after the other they screeched above our heads. Flapping and flapping and emitting remote, obscure cries, like a distant witness. One tortured screech after the other, never together.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot for those who intend to read this book, however I will say that this is not a simple plot driven novel, we have many, many layers at play here. First off we have a main character who has invented a talented writer, how reliable is our narrator’s voice?
The next morning I was already able to tell him that he was making a big, if common, mistake in his reading of Lolita; that the book was pervaded by a consciousness of sin; that the utter ruin of Lolita is conveyed through an unreliable narrator, and that the reader together with Humbert Humbert are clearly aware of the fact that there is no restoration and atonement is impossible.
Early on in the book we start to question our unreliable narrator, in our case is atonement possible?
We also have the book “Hitler, First Person” which our narrator quickly reads and gives us a summation, she then reads it in detail and gives us further conclusions, as a reader you know there is no such book, but you cannot help to go along with our narrator’s telling of this fictional fiction. Is author of “Hitler, First Person” an unreliable voice? We know he is a monster, is there a parallel to Lolita? So many questions, so many layers, so many things to have you mind racing as you devour this masterful construction of a book.
We also have red-herrings, or are they actual prophecies? “Hitler, First Person” concludes with “with a reference to the sun” will our book have a similar conclusion? Aaron Gotthilf becomes “the bottom dweller”, “first person” and a raft of other names as our story unfolds, is there a theme here as he slowly becomes a non-person?
As a reader you become complicit in Elinor’s tale and her actions, you then begin to question your own moral stand point, am I all of a sudden becoming a “bottom dweller”?

This is an absolute gem of a book, although written in a simple journalistic style (Gail Hareven’s creation does write for newspapers) there are so many levels that his book plays on. In my opinion an absolute moral to make the Best Translated Book Award lists for 2016.

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