(Carried in The Hindu, July 2006)

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Amos Oz
Vintage Books, distributed by Rupa & Co,
POUNDS 4.75, 517 pages
ISBN 978-0-099-45003-0

“My mother’s stories may have been strange, frightening, but they were
captivating… Her stories did not begin at the beginning or conclude
with a happy ending but they flickered in the half-light, wound round
themselves, emerged from the mists for a moment, amazed you, sent
shivers up your spine, then disappeared back into the darkness before
you had time to see what was in front of your eyes.”

Amos Oz was a child of twelve-and-a-half, caught between the arid
repressiveness of his parents’ corner of Jerusalem and the turbulence
that accompanied the emergence of the Israeli state, when his mother
killed herself. By that time, she had told him stories of a kind few
mothers tell their children: of Hades and Orpheus, of the daughter
whose Nazi father was hanged at Nuremberg, of the bear who adopted a
dead child, of the ghost who returned from the dead to seduce his
murderer’s daughter. His father, Yehuda Arieh Klausner, stocked their
tiny flat with books, but it was his mother, Fania Mussman, who gave
him the old archetypes, the dark ancient tales and the bleak modern
ones that he built on to become one of the world’s greatest living
storytellers.

To say that Fania Mussman’s suicide is at the heart of A Tale of
Love and Darkness
would be misleading; it is there right from the
start and the knowledge of her death goes hand in hand with the saga
of promise and betrayal, blood and destruction, that accompanies the
story of modern Israel. Two years after her suicide, writes Oz, “I
killed my father and the whole of Jerusalem.” The boy who at the age
of five had printed up a sign reading AMOS KLAUSNER WRITER
accomplished this by changing his name to Oz and joining a kibbutz.
Klausner died forever; the writer remained.

It takes several readings of A Tale of Love and Darkness before
the power of this dense, searingly honest memoir reveals itself,
before the glory of this master craftsman’s prose becomes fully
apparent. “I work like a watchmaker or an old-fashioned silversmith:
one eye screwed up, the other fitted with a watchmaker’s magnifying
glass, with fine tweezers between my fingers, with bits of paper
rather than cards in front of me on my desk, on which I have written
various words, verbs adjectives and adverbs, and bits of dismantled
sentences, fragments of expressions and descriptions and all kinds of
tentative combinations. Every now and again I pick up one of these
particles, these molecules of text, carefully with my tweezers, hold
it up to the light…, turn it in various directions, lean forward and
rub or polish it, hold it up to the light again, rub it again
slightly, then bend forward and fit it into the texture of the cloth I
am weaving…”

His history moves between the personal and the political; there could
be no other way. Fania Mussman and Yehuda Klausner had friends and
family die in the Holocaust; their life in Jerusalem was built on the
foundations of a repeating pattern of family migrations, as the Jews
of Europe found the doors of the world closed against them. A young
Amos Oz learns the meaning of “anti-Semitism” through photographs
taken in his father’s school and college years. “The boys are wearing
caps and the girls round berets… It’s almost certain that virtually
all the young people in these group photographs were stripped naked
and made to run, whipped and chased by dogs, starved and frozen, into
the large pits in the Ponar Forest. Which of them survived, apart from
my father?”

In the last years of British rule, Jerusalem’s residents faced
“explosions, ambushes, arrests, house-to-house searches, stifled dread
of what still awaited us in the days to come”. The phrases of ordinary
conversation were ominous: “Chelmo, Nazis, Vilna, partisans,
Aktionen , death camps, death trains”. Oz learned that children
of his age didn’t always grow up; he learned enough to want to grow up
to be a book. “Not a writer but a book. And that was from fear…. Books
are not difficult to burn either, it’s true, but if I grew up to be a
book there was a good chance that at least one copy might manage to
survive…”

And he did. Oz tells the stories of darkness as only a survivor can;
and he writes with a survivor’s intensity about love—the love of
books, of Teacher Zelda, of young women, of a pet tortoise, of the
comedy that ensues when Menachem Begin uses the old Hebrew word for
“to arm”, which in the slang of Oz’s day corresponded to the term for
the male member.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a colossal achievement. It will
stand as one of the great books of our time, a moving evocation of the
troubled birth of a beleagured nation and the tentative adolescence of
a great writer. As it spirals downwards to its terrible, poignant
conclusion, the son using all the power and pity of a writer’s
imagination to evoke his mother’s last moments of life, you know that
you will never forget this book, or Amos Oz.

(N.B. The New Yorker carried a fascinating profile of Oz recently, do go read:
“I don’t like to be described as an author of fiction,” he said. “Fiction is a lie. James Joyce took the trouble, if I am not mistaken, to measure the precise distance from Bloom’s basement entrance to the street above. In ‘Ulysses’ it is exact, and yet it is called fiction. But when a journalist writes, ‘A cloud of uncertainty hovers . . .’—this is called fact!”)