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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, August 2, 2010

a powerful autobiography

One of the Sofia Booktrader books I had casually picked up was Amos Oz's - A Tale of Love and Darkness - which turned out to be an autobiography and a really stunning one. All I knew about this Israeli writer was that he has played an important reconciliation role with Palestinians. The annals of a website Complete Review gave me these paras
Oz grew up in an incredibly bookish household, with two very bookish parents, and this reading-passion grabbed hold of him as well (and wouldn't let him go, no matter how hard he tried). The focus of the book is his childhood, leading up to the decisive moment in his life, when his mother committed suicide, Amos not yet even a teenager. That it happened is revealed early on, and mentioned repeatedly, but for most of the long book Oz only takes jabs at it: it's only at the very end that he can describe in any detail what happened.
The suicide led also to his break with his father, as Oz moved to a kibbutz (and changed his name; he was born Amos Klausner), while his father soon remarried. There's some description of Oz kibbutz years, but it is the earlier years that Oz sees as the formative ones.
Books were a central feature in the Klausner household, and Amos' early ambition was not to become a writer but rather a book: books, he saw, seemed to stand a much better chance of survival than people. Taking to reading early on, books always played a central role in Amos' life. Already as a six year-old, it was a great day for him when his father set aside some bookshelf space for his books:
"It was an initiation rite, a coming of age.: anyone whose books are standing upright is no longer a child, he is a man".
Amos' childhood is typical of the hyper-literate: an only child, with no real friends, stuck in a gloomy urban setting with few opportunities for playing outside the home, -- and parents who constantly lost themselves in books as well (and who "had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century") -- so:
What surrounded me did not count. All that counted was made of words.
There's lots of talking around him, but often little listening -- as well as many secrets. Amos' parents switch languages when there are things they don't want him to understand, and there is a good deal that passes in silence too. The significance of Amos' mother's suicide is truly made clear when he admits:
"From the day of my mother's death to the day of my father's death, twenty years later, we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived. As if her life was just a censured page torn from a Soviet encyclopedia".
This memoir rectifies that situation somewhat, a coming to terms by Oz with his parents. Loving but difficult, they gave him a great deal -- but also both let him down, his mother by her illness and suicide, his father by having the affair that he saw as contributing to his mother's problem, and by failing to be able to communicate and explain so much to his son, despite being such a word-person..
His father was a polyglot scholar, but one who never achieved true academic success, his career complicated and overshadowed by a famous and important uncle. Amos seemed clearly destined to follow on this bookish path, but his adolescent rebellion was an attempt to go in a different direction. As he learned immediately, it wasn't that easy:
"I had tried to turn my back once and for all on the world of scholarship and debate from which I had come, and I had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire"
It turned out that even the kibbutz was filled with those who read a great deal and constantly debated and even wrote. And true to his roots, Oz couldn't let be either, inevitably becoming if not a scholar at least a writer.
A Tale of Love and Darkness ambles along, wordy -- but necessarily so, gaining from its easy pace and bulk. Oz circles around topics, gets apparently sidetracked in detailed descriptions of small (and large) events, slowly opens up in a very introspective work that also tries to constantly relate to the world around him. From small memories -- the feel of a pebble in his mouth -- to his meetings with the famous (Agnon, Ben-Gurion), it's a mix of the everyday and the extraordinary. That constant shadow of all the dead relatives, and the lost world the generations before him had left behind, and the contrast to the new, often ugly world being shaped around him as he grew up is well presented

This book mourns the death of the socialist-Zionist dream of a just society and a strange new nationalism, predicated on research universities and string quartets, on comparative literature and experimental agriculture, that turned instead into an acid reflux of checkpoints, demolitions, transit camps, penal colonies and strategic hamlets.
And yet, determined to remember every minute leading up to his mother's suicide, he also sees through a child's eye the prelude to statehood in a Promised Land: the gabby idealisms, vatic visions and rich, combustible mix of poet-worker-revolutionaries, vegetarian world reformers, pioneer readers of Marx, Freud and Jabotinsky, nihilists, Yemenites, Frenchified Levantines and Kurds; the dusty cypresses, pale geraniums and pickled gherkins; the lace curtains, boiled fish, Lysol and paraffin; the youth movements, curfews and Stern Gang; the scorpions, witches and snails, Shakespeare and Chopin, the blunt razor blades, cheap sardines, smelly cigarettes, barbed wire and snipers; leopards in a garden on a Sabbath afternoon and mosques turning gold when the sun sets.

His language (and the translation by Nicholas de Lange) evokes the smells and characters so powerfully. This is a book to savour slowly - and to comeback to again and again. And, already, I have ordered some of his novels.

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