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     Volume 4 Issue 13 | September 17, 2004 |

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Book Review

The Burden of Bistory

Amos Oz

Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, thought to be the biggest-selling literary work in Israeli history, is an exploration of why his mother killed herself, and the effect on him, a sensitive, intelligent boy growing up in Jerusalem during the last years of the British mandate and the war of independence. It is one of the funniest, most tragic and most touching books I have ever read. I am a great admirer of Oz as a novelist, of his spare, quiet portraits of intimacy between couples, but here, in this long book, he reveals a huge talent for the big narrative picture, for Dickensian character portraits and an expert fusion of history and personal life.

From the outset the family bears down on you. His father, Ariyeh Klausner, the thwarted academic in a land stuffed with the over-qualified - "a sort of rootless, short-sighted intellectual with two left hands". His grandfather, the follower of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the revisionist founding father of today's right-wing Israeli politics: "He was a nationalist, patriot, a lover of armies, victories and conquest, a passion-ate, innocent minded-hawk... He had a weakness for everything grand, powerful and gleaming - military uniforms, brass bugles, banners and lances glinting in the sun, royal palaces and coats of arms. He was a child of the 19th century, even if he did live long enough to see three-quarters of the 20th century."

Here, too, is the neighbourhood, obsessed with germs: "You never actually managed to set eyes on an anti-semite or a germ, but you knew very well they were lying in wait for you on every side, out of sight." The city, Jerusalem, where people schlepped along the streets: "If we picked up our foot someone else might come along and snatch our little strip of land. On the other hand, once you have lifted your foot, do not be in a hurry to put it down again... time and time again we have fallen into the hands of our enemies because we put our foot down without looking where we were putting them." Tel Aviv, spoken of almost confidentially, "as though the city were some kind of crucial secret project of the Jewish people", the sea "full of bronzed Jews who could swim... Who had ever heard of swimming Jews?"

As he grows up, the world outside the lower-middle class neighbourhood of down-at-heel intellectuals opens up to reveal another population: Jerusalem's middle-class Arabs. Taken to a tea party in the home of a post office employee in honour of the British post-master general, he goes into the garden and tries to impress a little girl, puffed up with a sense of responsibility as a representative of the Jewish people and of Zionism. Excited and already a little in love, when she dares him to climb a mulberry tree he instantly transforms himself from Jabotinsky to Tarzan, from weedy yeshiva bocher to muscular Judaism, "the resplendent new Hebrew youth at the height of his powers... a lion among lions"; he finds an iron ball and chain at the top of the tree, whirls it round his head like a lasso, loses control over it, so that it lands with a bloody crash on the foot of her little brother, who is toddling after a butterfly, "and everything was silent all around you in an instant as though you had been shut up inside an iceberg".

Oz's book is a testament to a family, a time and a place. And throughout it there is the voice of the child who, 50 years later, still cries out for his dead mother.

This article was first published in the Guardian



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