Many-layered masterpiece

Memoir: Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and polemicist, has written a memoir

Memoir: Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and polemicist, has written a memoir. At least for cataloguing purposes that is how it will be described.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is certainly a partial rather than a chronologically complete account of significant events, notably his mother's suicide when he was aged 12 and a half. However, in addition to the personal it also encompasses his family's back history in Russia from the 17th to the 20th century, the settler experience in Palestine during the British Mandate, and the traumatic events surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. There are some contemporary vignettes too.

The work is rich and deep and packed with detail, historical as well as domestic. One would have to go to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past to find an equivalent. Oz's ambition, however, is not to emulate the French novelist. The literary figure who presides here - indeed he is repeatedly invoked - is Anton Chekhov. This is partly because Oz's Russian forebears are like characters from a Chekhov story but mostly because the author's attitude towards his material is a Chekhov-like one. Chekhov didn't prettify yet he always found some good in everyone he wrote about. Oz, similarly, in his writing is fair-minded, resolutely non-judgmental and understanding. This is the first sign of this book's greatness.

Besides detail, this work is also filled with people. In the foreground there is the author's father, a thwarted academic, and his mother, the sensitive daughter of a Ukrainian mill-owner who found Palestine tawdry and suffocating. Then there are the grandparents (both sets) and the maternal aunts, an eclectic band of petit bourgeois Russian Zionists who escape to Palestine in the 1930s. They are a vital fixture in the young Oz's life, as are his neighbours, teachers and the other émigrés who live in the undistinguished suburb of Jerusalem where Oz spends his childhood. In his account they are a cliquey and gossipy community and very different to the Israelis he meets on the kibbutz where he lives in late adolescence after his mother's death. These last are capable people who are good with their hands. They are brusque and truculent too. But that's pioneers for you. They are also caring and tender and they give the young Oz a complete education - academic, political and sexual - for which he is now, writing as an adult, extremely grateful.


Finally, you even meet some of Israel's leading political figures on Oz's pages: there are portraits of Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, an inspiring and garrulous intellectual manqué, and the underground leader, Menachem Begin, here shown as a verbose and dangerous visionary. When you reach the end of the book you feel you know every one of these people deeply, and that is its second mark of greatness.

A Tale of Love and Darkness has a huge amount of content - not only in terms of character but also story, personal as well as historical, to communicate. Like Proust (though I doubt he was the model Oz had in mind) the author eschews the linear approach in favour of a narrative technique closer to the psychoanalytical. He starts as if this were an onion, on the outside, and as he progresses, he peels away layer after layer until he arrives at the awful pith, his mother's last weeks in Jerusalem, and the disintegration of the family that followed her suicide: after her death his mother's family stopped having anything to do with Oz's father, whom they blamed for her death. The crab-like progress is a dangerous strategy but Oz's storytelling doesn't falter once during the 517 pages that constitute his book. This is the third mark of the book's greatness.

Because he is an Israeli writer Oz knows he is expected to have a view, preferably pro-Palestinian, on the current catastrophe in the Middle East. The expectation is unfair but Oz accepts this is how the world is and he delivers. He does so with a sequence of stories about his experience of Arabs in childhood, of which the principle is an account of a visit to a rich Arab businessman's house in Jerusalem before Israel was established.

In this sequence, Oz, the boy, meets a beautiful Palestinian girl in the garden. She invites him to climb a tree. He does: he wants to impress her. This initiates a sequence of events that culminate, due to Oz's irresponsibility, in the near death and serious injury of the girl's younger brother. Thereafter, relations between the Ozs and the Arab family cease but Oz has never stopped thinking about what happened. At one point he even wonders where the girl and her brother ended up after 1948. Probably in a squalid camp, he concludes. Then he speculates about finding them and apologising for what was almost involuntary manslaughter. Then he realises that would be pointless. What he did can't be undone and that's that.

Towards his personal tragedy, his mother's suicide, he has learned to adopt the same attitude. He'd like to undo it: indeed, he fantasies about travelling back in time and stopping his mother. That's only human. However, the hard lesson he's had to learn in his personal life is that he has only one option: remembering his suffering made him the writer and the man that he is, he has to accept that the past is unchangeable and go forward. His recommendation to the political classes in the part of the world where he lives is that they follow the same course. It's a brutal counsel yes, but we did want to know what he thought and this is it. Many writers have yoked their personal stories to a political position. The results are usually awful. Oz isn't in that category. He's one of the very few who pull it off and this (even if the message may be uncongenial to some), is the fourth sign of this book's magnificence. Oh yes, on every possible level, whether as literature or polemic, this is a masterpiece.

Carlo Gébler is an author and writer-in-residence in HMP Maghaberry. Next year he publishes The Cup of Bitterness, a narrative account of the siege of Derry, and The Bull Raid, a free version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley