In his latest look at the Jerusalem of his childhood, Amos Oz sheds anger, frustration, bewilderment, and the protective cloak of fiction.
The child of refugees, Amos Oz fled the Jerusalem immigrant quarter of Kerem Avraham as a teenager for a kibbutz, where he spent his nights writing in the bathroom. Several of his novels feature young protagonists coming of age in the Mandate’s last days and Israel’s first. In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz casts off the veil of fiction to describe a youth darkened by his mother’s suicide and an adulthood spent in embattled terrain.
Before A Tale of Love and Darkness, you wrote The Same Sea, a prose poem, difficult and most unusual. Did it open the door to the memory of your parents?
The Same Sea was structured like a madrigal, an assembly of voices. A Tale of Love and Darkness is more like a broad symphony. I don’t think one of them opened the door for the other, because the memories are with me all the time, and because neither of those books is based entirely on memory. Both contain a combination of memory and invention and playfulness and imagination and exaggeration. But for me, the time has come to write about my own childhood in a very detached way. Not with anger, not with revenge, but to write about my parents as if they were my children, about my grandparents as if they were my grandchildren. I could only write A Tale of Love and Darkness when I reached a point where I felt that I was past anger, frustration, revenge, or even bewilderment. I could write with a smile, or perhaps with a combination of a smile and a tear. I could write with irony and compassion about times that had gone, people who are no longer here, and I wrote it not in order to put the blame on someone but in order to save what I could save from the river of time.
Would you say that this book sprouts from the seed of the authentic past?
If you mean authentic in the sense of a police report, then my book is not authentic. It is full of invention, it’s full of imagination, it’s full of reconstruction from my head and from my genes. But I tried to capture or sometimes recreate atmospheres of bygone times, of decades which now look as if they are centuries ago. Of people who now look as if they lived in a different eon. I tried to make them present. I try to present them as if my reader can be in the same room with them, can be sometimes in the same bed with them, can be sometimes in the same emotional condition with them.
Your new book takes place mostly in Jerusalem, but Eastern Europe, where your parents came from, remains in the background at all times. How was the connection between Jerusalem and Europe then, and what is it today, say, between your home in Arad and Europe?
My parents and my grandparents were very devoted Europeans. I am not a European. I don’t see myself as an European. But they were. In the 1920s or 1930s, everyone was a Bulgarian patriot, or a Norwegian patriot, or a Polish patriot. The only Europeans in Europe at that time were Jews like my parents, for which Europe hated them, persecuted them, and labeled them cosmopolitans. There were three pejorative terms that the Nazis shared with the Communists: cosmopolitan, parasite, intelligent. All three labels stick to my family, because they were precisely this. They were not Polish or Russian, they were great lovers of Europe. And they were violently kicked out of Europe, despite their love—and fortunately, because if Europe would not have kicked them out in the 1930s, it would have killed them in the 1940s.
So in a sense I am the child of people who experienced a rejected love of Europe. I grew up in the shadow of their emotional injury. My parents, my grandparents, they were not the people who drowned with the Titanic in the big, big catastrophe, no, they were the people who were thrown into the ocean in the dark, from the decks of the Titanic, while the dancing and the dining and the ball was still going on and everybody was happy. They never recovered from it. They created a mini-Europe in a tiny little basement of an apartment, filled with books in 17 different European languages, they dreamed about Europe. They loved the landscapes, the atmosphere, the art, the history, the literature, and, above all, the music. Oh, they worshipped the music! And yet, they were very careful not to teach me even one European language, because they were afraid that if I had a European language, I might be seduced by the deadly charm of Europe and catch my death.
I still find in me this strange combination of fascination and anger which I inherited from my ancestors. It is not only anger about the past, to some extent it is also anger about the relentless hypocrisy and self-righteousness of Europeans concerning world affairs.
What do you mean?
I don’t think that the policy of wagging fingers—at the Arabs or at the Israelis or at the Americans or at the Iraqis—is a great blessing. I think Europe ought to be much more directly responsible and helpful in world affairs, and much less moralizing and telling others how they ought and ought not to behave. Europe could have been a lot more helpful than it is in many, many troubled parts of the world.
Kerem Avraham, the Jerusalem neighborhood where you grew up, is now completely Orthodox. What do you think about on your walks there?
I don’t have the slightest problem with the fact that places change. The Kerem Avraham of my life is in my book, not where you have gone for a walk. It’s in my memory, and it’s in my descriptions, just like those shtetls in Eastern Europe where my parents came from. They no longer exist, and yet they do exist in the collective memories of those who came from there. So no, I am not going to lament the fact that my world is gone. It’s not gone, it’s elsewhere.
Your new book is not only the tragic story of your parents but also of your personal development, from, as you write, a 9-year-old Zionist propagandist under the sway of his great uncle Joseph Klausner, to a minimalist Zionist, as you call yourself today. How did your viewpoint change?
You said my book is sad and tragic and this is true, but it is meant to be a tragicomedy. I wanted to erase the line between the tragedy and the comedy. These are not two different planets; these are just two different windows through which we can watch the same landscape. And I wrote this tale deliberately in such a form that it will be both funny and heartbreaking, not on different pages but sometimes in the same episodes.
To some extent, this is also the answer to your question. Of course I was a little militant, like every child one way or another, in my case nationalistic. Some other children are militant about the Internet or militant about Star Wars or militant about whatever. For me, the key to maturity is the realization of the existence of others and the ability to imagine the others. As soon as I internalized the fact that we Israeli Jews are not alone in this country, there are others, I had to rearrange my thoughts and my feelings. The moment I realized that some Israeli Jews are going to be ultra-Orthodox and others are not, I had to rearrange my thoughts and ask myself, how can we coexist? Not happily, not without tensions, not in a state of perpetual honeymoon. But how can we reach a situation where we stop killing one another and start living unhappily next door to one another? This to me is the syndrome of maturity. Anyone who grows up thinking that he or she is alone in the world or alone in the house or alone in the country meaning everyone else must be like me, every such person is a very dangerous person. So for me it was linked with my artistic development or my discovery of my own personality as a young writer, as a young artist. Others exist, and I am more curious than angry about those others. Not necessarily because I love them, I am just curious. Curiosity cured me of my fanaticism, humor cured me from my fanaticism. Curiosity and humor are powerful antidotes to dogmatism.
You write that, as a child, you always wanted to be a book and not a writer. Why?
It’s not just that I was surrounded by books and raised in a bookish atmosphere. It was fear. I grew up in the shadow of a dreadful genocide, and the shadow of an impending next possible genocide for my people here in this country. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever grow up to live. And then I thought that books have a better chance to survive than people. You can kill a person, you can burn a book. But if you burn a book, some copy may survive in some far away library in Brazil or in Korea or in Australia. So I wanted to be a book for my safety. I am very glad I am not a book. I don’t want to be a book. I want to write books, yes, I want to read books, yes, I love books. But I don’t want to be a book. I want to live.
As a teenager, Roya Hakakian fell hard for the Iranian Revolution. It may have betrayed her, but you never forget your first love.