By Amos Oz, translated by Nicholas de Lange
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pages, $25
Considering how often fellow Israelis have called him a “traitor” (from his early involvement in Peace Now to his recent comparison of violent West Bank settlers to neo-Nazis, which earned him death threats), it should hardly surprise anyone that Amos Oz has long been preoccupied by the term’s fraught significance. The exceedingly malleable nature of just what “treason” and “loyalty” really signify enlivened earlier works (especially “Panther in the Basement”, which portrays a child of Jewish underground fighters’ friendship with a British soldier during the Mandate). Now, in his penetrating new novel, “Judas” (published in Hebrew as “The Gospel According to Judas”), Oz places the “virus of treachery” front and center, delivering his most thoughtful and perhaps most urgent statement yet concerning the uneasy relationship between nationalism and critical citizenship.
After roughly a decade devoted to collected essays, (“How To Cure a Fanatic,” and “Jews and Words” — the latter co-written by his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger), short-story collections (“Scenes From Village Life” and “Between Friends”) and a fable for younger readers (“Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest”), Oz has made a return to the novel, which will surely gratify many. For “Judas” is a stately but thoroughly entertaining work, brimming with intricate storylines and characters who are brilliantly alive and get under one’s skin. Woven around a structural triptych consisting of the story’s “present” set in the harsh Jerusalem winter of 1959–1960, the chief protagonist is a young biblical scholar whose investigation of the portrayal of Judas in the early Christian imagination leads to a startling conclusion, and lastly to a beguiling alternate history of Roman Palestine. told by none other than Judas himself.
Initially, antihero Shmuel Ash seems to be one of Oz’s more familiar types, a luftmensch, concerned with intellectual pursuits, sharing many of the dysfunctional and antiheroic qualities of his predecessors (as early as the tragic paratrooper in his classic story “The Way of the Wind”). We meet Shmuel at a moment of acute crisis: University studies abandoned, romantic life in ruins, and beleaguered by asthma, he faces a bleak financial horizon. And Shmuel has long anguished that, given as he is to sentiment and uncontrollable tears, he falls too short of the national ideal of Sabra masculinity to attract a woman. At one point, he ruefully contemplates a colorful poster for Jewish National Fund displaying his converse image: “a tough, muscular pioneer, his sleeves rolled up… top button of his shirt undone, revealing a suntanned, hairy chest.” Nebbish or not, Shmuel is drawn with fierce tenderness and a rich interiority.
Just when prospects look particularly dire, Shmuel finds employment as a caregiver and increasingly argumentative foil for a cynical old man named Gershom Wald. Gershom’s bookish household includes the provocative presence of Atalia, daughter of the late Shealtiel Abravanel, who spent his last days scorned by society for his dovish views on coexistence. (“They said he was the bastard son of an Arab. Hebrew newspapers mockingly called him the Muezzin, or Sheikh Abravanel, or the sword of Islam”) Embittered by those who drove her compassionate father into a kind of exile, Atalia is also scarred by the particularly horrific death of her husband, Gershom’s son Micha, in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
As lovelorn Shmuel becomes obsessed with Atalia, secrets are revealed. And given the clamorous afterlife of the two dead men, who seem to take up at least as much room as the living, the little apartment can seem both claustrophobic and gloomy. There are other ghosts in the novel, too. As a quiet but insistent backdrop to the political and ideological debates seething in these pages, the presence of the ruins of a pre-1948 Palestinian village and its “half-built festival hall” underscore what else has been lost.
Over the years, Oz has occasionally been criticized for creating female characters who function merely as passive catalysts for male desire, and it is true that Oz can sometimes seem perplexed by the mystery of the feminine. At first Atalia seems cast in that vein, frustratingly elusive and withholding through Shmuel’s gaze. Yet ultimately Atalia emerges as one of Oz’s most perceptive and politically unsparing characters. She vehemently confronts the helplessly infatuated Shmuel with her disgust over the destructive force of male ambition and desire: “I can’t love men. You’ve held the whole world in your hands for thousands of years and you’ve turned it into a horror show. A slaughterhouse.” And elsewhere:
You wanted a state. You wanted independence. Flags and uniforms and banknotes and drums and trumpets. You shed rivers of innocent blood. You sacrificed an entire generation. You drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs out of their homes. You sent shiploads of Holocaust survivors straight from the quayside to the battlefield. All so there would be a Jewish state here. And look what you’ve got.
In recent interviews Oz has forcibly observed that many of the most significant leaders in history were called traitors by many of their own people, most poignantly his late friend Shimon Peres, who loved arguing with the novelist and faithfully read all his books (he also cites Abraham Lincoln, de Gaulle, Gorbachev, Begin, Sadat, Rabin, even the prophet Jeremiah).
In that light, Shmuel appears cast as the author’s ideological proxy when he declares, “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.” Defending the audacious utopianism of Atalia’s late father, Shmuel remarks that “Abravanel had a beautiful dream, and because of his dream some people called him a traitor.” In many vital moments, “Judas” reads like the powerful zenith of Oz’s imaginative and persistent interrogation of the toxic mingling of messianism and politics in the Jewish state.
Oz has other irons in the fire of what may be his most ambitious and multilayered novel to date. Deeply concerned with the ugly distortions at the foundation of Christian anti-Semitism, Oz has said that the figures of both Jesus Christ and Judas have allured him ever since his teenage years on a kibbutz. Moreover, this turns out to be something of a family story, considering that his great-uncle, the renowned historian Joseph Klausner, aroused heated controversy with his 1921 book “Jesus of Nazareth” reclaiming Jesus as a devout Jew. In “Judas,” alternating chapters explore the fruits of Shmuel’s scholarship, the insidious ways that Judas came to be seen as “the incarnation of treachery, the incarnation of Judaism, the incarnation of the connection between Judaism and betrayal” and the “hated archetype of all Jews, in every country and century” in the Christian imagination. But when Shmuel’s research leads him to boldly conclude that Judas was the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples, it becomes apparent that Oz has crafted a subtle allegory not only linking events in ancient Palestine with the tempests of modern Zionism and the State of Israel, but also with the fatal distortions to which Western Civilization has too often succumbed.
Oz’s poetically precise language is as potent as ever, and in the novel’s deepest strata, which suddenly plunges the reader into ancient Jerusalem and the tormented mind of Judas himself, the effect is almost visceral, a shocking contrast to the rest of this cerebral novel. It’s utterly spellbinding. And for all its lofty historical and political themes, “Judas” also succeeds as a rather unusual love story (for Oz there seems nothing sexier than deferred desire), filled with pathos and longing. As has been the case so often in the past, translator Nicholas de Lange has superbly captured the intricate nuances and shifting moods of Oz’s Hebrew.
Ever since his early masterpiece “My Michael,” Oz has figured Jerusalem prominently in his fiction, and “Judas” rewards the reader with achingly beautiful and lingering descriptions of its famous light, alleys, stony houses of worship and pervasive melancholy.
“Judas” also reads like an especially urgent and profoundly universal work, its characters’ heartfelt struggles with their own human frailties, as well as those of the state, resonating far beyond Israel itself. By the book’s conclusion, the reader recognizes that there are many forms of betrayal, not least the states and revolutions that destroy innocent people. Astonishingly, at the age of 77, Oz has written one of the most triumphant novels of his career.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence’s Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His most recent book is “Imagining the Kibbutz” (Penn State University Press, 2015).