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Thursday, January 06, 2005

A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz

Amos Oz is one of Israel's best known novelists; some label him as Israel's "number one". Any new book by Oz gets the immediate attention of everyone, gets translated to several languages and hits the no. 1 spot in the bestsellers list almost immediately. Indeed, Oz has become an icon in Israel to whom many turn to, not only to discuss literary matters but also get his opinion on politics, society and life in general. As my wife says, he has become a "sacred cow", elevated to a status where it has become extremely difficult for any critic to harm sales of his books in any significant way.

I read A Tale of Love and Darkness (in Hebrew) during my trip in New Zealand and it accompanied me throughout the journey. It is an autobiography that Oz started writing shortly after he turned 60, at the end of the previous century. It tells mainly the story of his childhood in Jerusalem, growing up during the time Israel was being formed (Oz was 9 when Israel gained independence). Although the book covers many aspects of his life, the one overriding theme surfacing over and over again is the suicide of his mother when he was 12. This event shaped Oz's life and led to the abrupt change he embarked upon two years later: the move from the book-centric, scholarly life of his father in Jerusalem to the freedom and agricultural life of Kibbutz Hulda.

Oz's writing is at times long-winded and pompous. Even daily, mundane events are recounted in excruciating detail that sometimes make the reader wonder whether they indeed made such an impact on his life to deserve such attention. Despite this, Oz manages to combine tragedy and comedy in his family's saga and his occasional self-effacing manner make the reader forgive him for his long-windedness. Throughout the book, the leading figures of Israel as a young nation pop up: Bialik, Tchernikhowsky, Agnon, Ben-Gurion and Yadin all came and went in Oz's childhood.

The book is more of a memoir than an autobiography. The storyline is not linear and Oz repeats some events several times. If we ignore the fact that Oz wrote this book and thus remove the "sacred cow" factor, the book is an enjoyable read and contributes to the understanding of how Ashkenazi Jews coped with their new life in the Middle East.

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