Whether by luck or judgement I don’t now remember, but I first came across the work of Amos Oz in 1984. The occasion was my sole visit to Israel, when I needed a contemporary guide, my only other literary encounter with Jewish culture having been three historical novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somewhere between Singer’s nineteenth-century Poland and Oz’s modern stories came the horrors of the Nazi era: the bit of Jewish history that everyone knows and that is built into everyone’s idea of the state of Israel. It was in my mind at the time, not least because the parents of our Israeli friend bore the tattoos of the concentration camp on their forearms.
The book that spans the period and would have explained a lot had not yet been written. Amos Oz’s memoir of his childhood, youth and family history, A Tale of Love and Darkness, was published much later, in 2003. Like all his books it was written in Hebrew – a language that was dead for many centuries before being revived so that immigrants arriving in Palestine from the diaspora could communicate with one another. Oz has described in interviews the extraordinary transformation of ‘prayer-book Hebrew’ into a ‘volcanic’ language, one that is ‘happening’ all the time, and has likened the use of it to playing a musical instrument. Translating it successfully into English must be a formidable challenge but Nicholas de Lange, who has worked closely with Oz for four decades, vividly conveys the voices not only of the author but also of the crowd of characters who people his pages.
Voices are my abiding memory of A Tale of Love and Darkness. The young Amos Klausner (he changed his name to Oz later) was surrounded by people in the densely populated quarter of Jerusalem where he lived for the first fifteen years of his life. Every one of them had an opinion on everything from international politics to the ethical dilemma inherent in buying Arab cheese. And they were eager to share their opinions, occasionally crowding into the Klausners’ claustrophobic little flat in order to do so. Oz evokes in intense and by turns hilarious detail the patterns of speech, the preoccupations, fears and prejudices of a community in voluntary exile from everything it holds dear back home in Europe, ‘that wonderful, murderous continent’: