Feb 2005 Journal

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Confronting a trauma (book review)

by Amos Oz
translated by Nicholas de Lange, Chatto & Windus, £17.99

'Nowhere in the world wants me. Nobody in the world wants me ... That's the only reason I'm here. That's the only reason I'm carrying a gun so they won't kick me out of here the way they've kicked me out of everywhere else.'

These words of Ephraim Avineri, founder member of Kibbutz Hulda and a mentor of the teenage Amos Oz, encapsulate the predicament confronting immigrants to Palestine/Israel in the pre-state period and the early years of statehood. Many, like Oz's parents and grandparents, had been caught up in the Zionist fervour infusing the towns and villages of Eastern Europe but were reluctant to leave the Europe they loved for the distant 'Asiatic' homeland that offered them refuge until the ground 'burned under their feet'.

Oz's parents, Fania Mussman and Arieh Klausner, deracinated immigrants who met at the Hebrew University in the late 1930s, were, like many of their contemporaries, victims of this 'unhappy love affair with Europe'. And in this haunting tale of his childhood and adolescence, masterfully reconstructed like a novel, Israel's leading writer confronts the trauma he experienced at the age of twelve-and-a-half when, as he puts it, his mother 'chose to end her life'.

In a 'low-ceilinged ground floor flat' in Jerusalem stuffed full of books, the seeds of the future writer were sown. Here the erudite, loquacious and pedantic Arieh, frustrated in his ambition to pursue an academic career, and the dreamy, subdued and insightful Fania, enmeshed in the gothic fantasies with which she regales her young son, play out the disastrous marital liaison they entered with the best of intentions. This claustrophobic environment pervades Oz's depiction of Jerusalem as a dim outpost, remote from the world out there, 'over the hills and far away', a Jerusalem he abandons in the wake of the tragedy and his father's remarriage a year later.

Not only does the teenage Amos embrace kibbutz life; he changes his family name from Klausner to Oz, a decision that, he claims, 'killed' his father. A family of eminent Revisionists, supporters of Jabotinsky and Begin, the Klausners were in thrall to the distinguished head of the clan, Arieh's uncle, Professor Joseph Klausner. Oz recalls with humour the rivalry between 'Uncle Joseph' and his neighbour across the road, the future Nobel laureate 'Mr S Y Agnon'.

With consummate skill, Oz merges personal history with the momentous events of the 1940s. The vote at the United Nations partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state and the resulting siege of Jerusalem are particularly vividly recreated. Also striking are Oz's recollections of rival political giants: Begin, his one-time hero, whose speech at a political rally turns 12-year-old Amos away from Revisionism, and Ben-Gurion, who invites the young kibbutznik, who had dared challenge a newspaper article he had written, to a personal meeting. A special highlight of Oz's childhood, despite its less than auspicious ending, is a visit with friends of his parents to the opulent villa of a wealthy Arab family.

But the constant, pervasive undercurrent to this Bildungsroman, a superb literary achievement, is Fania's tragic fate, which Oz treats with great sensitivity and courage.
Emma Klein

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