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Jerusalem’s own Chekhov

Amy Wilentz is the author of the novel "Martyrs' Crossing" and former Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker.

Of all the places in Israel where life is lived intensely and bad things happen, Jerusalem is the worst -- or the best. That’s where Amos Oz grew up, and his detailed and beautiful autobiography, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” explains to us how -- in spite of and because of the cruelties and complications of Jerusalem and, by extension, of Israel -- he became the man he is.

When we look at Oz today, we see before us an almost legendary figure, one of the world’s greatest living writers and, besides that, a man very much involved in the political life of his country and its halting, crippled lurches toward peace with the Palestinians.

I used to think Oz was simply a novelist -- the author of “My Michael,” “Fima,” “To Know a Woman,” “Don’t Call It Night,” “The Same Sea” and other works of fiction -- and a peacenik and, as they like to say in Israel, that’s that. But it turns out he is other things -- many of them, by his own autobiographical admission, not so grand. In fact, he is the “little bedwetter” of his grandfather’s scathing reproaches; he is “Your Highness” of his father’s ironic scolding (but really the Jewish prince of the family); he is the do-gooding, almost obsequious self-proclaimed “bar-mitzvah boy” who even now, over a third cup of coffee, standing at the window of the book-lined basement office in his house near the Dead Sea, wants to thank each and every person who ever contributed to his life; he is a sun-tanned kibbutznik. He is certainly the protagonist of his own story.

As he writes about himself and his family, Oz is also writing part of the history of the Jews: of their flight from Europe, their arrival in the Land and then of the penury and hardships of life in the pre-state, of the war and agreements that led to the emergence of Israel and, finally, of what came after. This gives the book a feeling of scope: We are reading of grave and consequential things, but all those things are being seen by one very special, educated, intelligent and highly sensitive blue-eyed boy. On the night the United Nations voted to allow the creation of the state of Israel, the boy -- high up on his father’s shoulders -- watched elated crowds in his neighborhood react to the news as it emerged from “the Lembergs’ ... heavy black radio receiver ... [which had been set up] on the balcony ... at full volume.”

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Oz was an only child; he describes his boyhood as lonely, and he lived among grown-ups, whom he studied almost scientifically. People in the book are constantly shushing each other with the words “Quiet, the boy is listening.” And they are right. This child is an inveterate eavesdropper, and so he is as a writer. Eavesdropping is a kind of obsession with him, and many of the relationships he has chronicled during his long career share qualities with his parents’ twisted marriage (a one-on-one he listened to for years with the care of a scientific researcher): for instance, a fraught silence that he describes in one book as “like arm wrestling.” In his parents’ marriage there was also fear, because his beautiful, intelligent, caustic mother was unhappier and unhappier as the years wore on, suffering from depression that was a torment to her and a terrible burden for her determinedly cheerful husband and the sensitive blue-eyed boy.

Though any reader today would blame Oz’s mother’s decline on diagnosable depression, Oz blames it on Jerusalem, where his refined, romantic, European mother was “surrounded by zinc tubs and pickled gherkins and the oleander that was dying in a rusty olive drum, assailed all day by smells of cabbage, laundry, boiled fish and dried urine.... " Imaginatively, Jerusalem belongs to Oz as much as his own mother does.

When Oz was 12, she killed herself. He describes how angry he was at her, how betrayed he felt, how abandoned, and he conveys the pain with precision: “I was angry at her for leaving without saying goodbye, without a hug, without a word of explanation: after all, my mother had been incapable of parting from even a total stranger, a delivery man or a peddler at the door, without offering ... a glass of water, without a smile, without a little apology, and two or three pleasant words.... If I ever disappeared even for an hour or two I was shouted at and punished; it was a fixed rule that anyone who went out always had to say where they were going and how long for and what time they would be back.... Is that any way to leave, rudely, in the middle of a sentence? ... I hated her.”

He hates himself and his father, too, for not saving her, and within two years of her death he changes his last name, abandons his already remarried father and Jerusalem, and goes off on his own to become a man on a distant kibbutz. At age 15. As the child matures, and as he slowly, but very surely, turns into a writer, his anger toward his self-destructive mother and his weak-willed father ripens into understanding and then into empathy.

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Although there is a strain of self-loathing that permeates this story, there is no self-pity. There is plenty of forgiveness to go around, except for the writer himself. For him, there is no forgiveness, no kindness. Oz inspects, ridicules and exposes himself at every opportunity, and yet he remains lovable, a trick that is an integral part of this writer’s magic. We are in the hands here of a capable, practiced seducer. It is also as if the reader had the most wonderful grandfather who is willing to tell everything about his life and make it all interesting, even funny, even meaningful, even moving. Oz is such a dexterous and naturally comic writer that he can turn a simple trip to the bathroom in his small, dark childhood house into an explanation of the psychology of post-Holocaust Jewry:

“When I left the toilet, I switched off the light with my left hand and simultaneously switched on the light in the passage with my right hand, because the Shoah was only yesterday, because there were still homeless Jews roaming the Carpathians and the Dolomites ... and because there was hardship and deprivation in other parts of the world too, the coolies in China, the cotton pickers in Mississippi.... It was our duty not to be wasteful.”

Another lovely, self-deflating scene is the one in which he believes he’s running into the woman who took his virginity. There she is, at a lecture he’s giving, still beautiful after so many, many years. He can’t believe it! And so he goes to hug and kiss his darling, only to discover that this beautiful woman is actually his lover’s daughter, and the woman who took him in her arms so tenderly so many years before is the old lady in a wheelchair whom he had rushed past.

Many of Oz’s most tender and sorrowful stories are about his father, a character worthy of Chekhov -- but then Oz himself is a reborn Chekhov. Once, when Oz was little, his father tried to help him make a garden in the hard, dusty sand behind their tiny house. After the ragged, debatable garden was finished, Oz’s father examined it: “He looked like a dazed Talmud student who had suddenly been dragged out of the darkness of the house of study, dressed up in the khaki shorts of the pioneer, and ruthlessly led into the dazzling blue of midday.” The story is about the repression of love and the demonstration of love, about how hard it is to coax any life out of the soil -- literal or metaphoric -- in Jerusalem, and about sad little Amos watering his sad dying garden with eardrops from the medicine chest. One night, secretly, his father replaces the dead plants with green, hardy new ones, and yet -- eventually these die too.

If you are hoping for an explanation of Oz’s politics, and how he came to them, you will not find it here. The stories hint and allude, but they resolutely refuse to explain. As a small child, he tells us, he once got lost in the Arab souk in Jerusalem in the dark and was rescued, after a long spell in an unlit stone cranny, by a Palestinian man, “a brown man with big bags under his kind eyes, neither young nor old, with a green and white tailor’s tape measure round his neck.... [He] drew me out of that dark recess, raised me high in the air, and squeezed me quite hard against his chest, and at that I began to cry.... Who knows what he was called? Or if he’s still alive? Is he living in his home? Or in dirt and poverty, in some refugee camp?”

Suffused with the pain of the death of his beloved mother, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” is also an elegy to lost innocence and an explanation of how Oz refused, finally, to make the Israeli choice between what he describes as “emotion and manliness.... Where I lived, men were not allowed to shed tears! Tears were shameful!” But as a writer he learned, he says, “to rein in and polish pain.”

“I have hardly ever spoken about my mother till now, till I came to write these pages,” Oz writes at the end of the autobiography. “Not with my father, or my wife, or my children, or with anybody else. After my father died, I hardly ever spoke about him either. As if I were a foundling.” The truth is, he saved this material for the novels. This book, with its lovely title, might equally well have been called, more bluntly, “Why I Write.” *


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