Judas – Amos Oz

(Tr. Nicholas de Lange)

“In many flats in Jerusalem you might find van Gogh’s starry whirlpool skies or his shimmering cypresses on the living room wall, rush mats on the floors of the small rooms, and Doctor Zhivago or Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag lying open, face down, on a foam sofa-bed that was covered with a length of Middle-Eastern cloth and piled with embroidered cushions.”

Dear Mr. Oz, you had me at van Gogh.

I can hear you now, ‘but you vehemently dislike novels centered around religious content’ and yes, yes, yes you would be right. But, we all know that people only grow with trying new things and getting out of their comfort zone. So here we are. I’m out on a limb. I have zero (absolute zilch) knowledge about Christianity, the Bible, Jesus and religion in general. So, let’s talk about why I adored this novel and wished I had bought it so I could’ve underlined the crap out of it because I’m sure the library frowns upon such methods.

  • The writing style. Oz’s characterizations. His subtle warmth, delicate humour, absolutely vivid and stunning scene setting.

“Professor Eisenschloss was a small, compact man with thick beer-bottle lenses in his spectacles, and movements that reminded you of a cuckoo darting busily out of a clock.”

  • Short chapters. C’mon now, who doesn’t love a short, sweet chapter? Much like those who dislike cheese, prefer vanilla to chocolate and wear underwear in their own homes – untrustworthy I tell ye.

“Anyone willing to change, will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change.”

  • Shmuel Ash.  How can you not love the guy?

“He suddenly wanted very much to live in that attic, to curl up inside it with a pile of books, a bottle of red wine, a stove, a quilt, a gramophone and some records, and not go outside, for lectures, debates or love affairs. To stay there and never leave, at least while it was cold outside.”

Something tells me that Shmuel and I are the same person, maybe not all the time, but definitely at times – we have our moments. Disclaimer: I have worked as a carer looking after the elderly for over five years, so I may be a tad biased.

I also adored Atalia. I would like to talk more about her, but I can’t find the words at present.

“And on the ceiling of your attic room, directly over your bed, oceans and continents take shape in the cracking plaster: you lie on your back for hours on end gazing at the archipelago of peeling plaster, islands, reefs, gulfs, volcanoes, fjords.”

Basically, if Amos Oz doesn’t win the MBI I’m not sure what I will do. That being said, I’ve only read half the shortlist, but if a compassionate, soft-spoken, affecting story that can entertain a self confessed agnostic/atheist cannot win a major literary prize, then what can?

“A slanting beam of sunlight filtered through the slats of the shutters, and innumerable tiny specks of dust whirled in it, like so many brightly-lit worlds in a shining milky way.”

This was my first Amos Oz, and it definitely won’t be my last.

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A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman

(Tr. Jessica Cohen)

“How inadequate are the expressions our faces offer us.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or do both simultaneously with this one. A novel I would have probably never looked twice at otherwise, A Horse Walks into a Bar is a hilarious, yet poigant novel which addresses grief and the question of how we use art in our lives: be it, words, music, painting or in this case, stand up comedy. Do we use it to escape or enrich, augment or avoid, to harmonize or hightail out of our own little hell.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is set in one room on one evening in Israel and follows a stand-up comedian essentially breaking down on stage. The novel is narrated by an old childhood friend of our comedian, Dovaleh G, who has been summoned to the show and sitting in the back of the room we too are thrust into a show that wasn’t quite what we had expected. As our protagonist, Dovaleh, disintegrates before his audience, many audience members get up and leave, hurl abuse as others support and encourage him prompting us as readers to ask ourselves, what would we do in the same situation.

“He is out on a limb that is getting heavier than the whole tree. The crowd can feel it too. People look at each other and shift restlessly. They understand less and less what it is that they have unwillingly become partners to. I have no doubt they would have got up and left long ago, or even booed him off stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist – the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The novel also focuses on the link between the private and public. Dovaleh’s life has been torn apart by grief and as he exposes this wound that he’s lived with he crumbles in the most public of places. As the evening progresses it is easier to differentiate where the acting gives way to real life and the audience’s reactions become divided.

“[…] sometimes I think that the most cunning form of cruelty is indifference.” *

As well as grief and its’ role in society, Grossman uses the novel as a metaphor for the Israel / Palestine conflict, however, don’t let this put you off as it’s so much more than politics. The writing is also astounding: mixing Dovaleh’s crass/hilarious stand-up with an imbued beauty and subtleness.

“We covered birthdays, which as you know are a day of reckoning, of soul-searching, at least for those who have a soul, and I’ll tell you that personally, in my state, I just don’t have the resources to maintain one. Seriously, souls demand non-stop upkeep, don’t they? It never ends! Every single day, all day long, you gotta haul it in for servicing. Am I right or am I right?”

Grossman’s novel is emotional and unsettling and by the halfway point, I struggled to put it down, even just to breathe. While it hasn’t been a 5 star read, upon reflection it is a steady 4 and I can wholeheartedly see it’s merit. (I found it’s writing style reminded me a little of last year’s MB longlisted Coetzee novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, although more memorable.) And after reading an interview with Grossman I am definitely adding him to my never-ending TBR pile of translated fiction, (he has quite an extensive back-list to look forward to!)

“I think that being a writer brings you into contact with the endless options of every human situation, in every human situation there is an enormous arsenal of options, of potential, of passions, of energies.” *

A Horse Walks into a Bar is brave, unrelenting and brutally human, and even if you don’t think it’s your ‘thing’ please do pick it up and give it a try. I have a sneaky suspicion that you may not be disappointed.

     *  from, DAVID GROSSMAN: ISRAELIS ‘MORE PRONE TO FANATICISM AND FUNDAMENTALISM’ – an interview with euronews.