My Man Booker International Prize travels continue today with a trip to the Middle East, but also a journey back in time. We’re off to Jerusalem at the end of 1959, where a young country with hostile neighbours looks uneasily towards the future. However, in one old house, the focus is very much on the past, both recent and ancient, as a young man tries to make sense of how those who believe the most are often those who are loved the least…
Judas by Amos Oz
– Chatto & Windus, translated by Nicholas de Lange
What’s it all about?
Shmuel Ash, a postgraduate student in Jerusalem, is forced to quit his studies after the collapse of both his father’s business and his relationship with his girlfriend (who calmly tells him that she’s off to marry someone else). On the verge of leaving the city to seek the quiet of the provinces, he sees a note on a university notice board:
Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum, in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.
p.11 (Chatto & Windus, 2016)
With nothing to lose, Shmuel heads off to an old house on Rabbi Elbaz Lane and accepts the position as companion to the aged, irascible Gershom Wald.
While happy to receive a sanctuary to recover from his disappointments, and quite content to keep the old man company, the failed student soon finds himself developing an interest in the house and its occupants. Apart from Wald, there’s a woman living there, Atalia, and Shmuel is quite helpless against her charms, even though she’s twenty years older than he is (and has warned him explicitly about trying to get close to her). However, as the cold Israeli winter passes, he also becomes interested in her dead father, a man reviled by his countryman for his pro-Arab beliefs. When Shmuel eventually restarts his reading on his thesis of Jewish views on Jesus, he suddenly realises that there are parallels between Atalia’s father and a rather infamous historical figure…
Judas is one of the longlisted titles that took me by surprise this year, not because I didn’t rate it, but rather because it hadn’t even caused a blip on my radar. It’s stands out a little from the pack owing to its incredibly measured pace, with very little happening, particularly in the first half, but while it did take me a while to really get the story, I gradually began to enjoy Oz’s take on modern and ancient history, and their effect on the present.
One successful aspect of Judas is the writer’s character study of Shmuel. Much of the first half focuses on his quirks, slowly crafting a slightly portly figure, the messy beard and clumsy demeanour concealing a kind, intelligent soul. His search for solitude after his relationship break-up is successful, and he uses his time to clear his mind through hours spent in his attic room, or wandering the streets of post-independence Jerusalem. Once he’s recovered somewhat, he turns his mental energies back to his studies of Jewish views on Jesus, and it’s here that the novel turns towards the subject of its title.
Shmuel’s research into the ‘bad’ disciple take an interesting turn when our friend decides that Judas, the most intelligent and cultured of the disciples, had no motive to betray his leader (the cash reward certainly wasn’t as tempting as it may appear). Instead, the research suggests that far from being a traitor, Judas was the most devout of the disciples. As Shmuel notes:
Every so often in history, courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics. (p.223)
What we see as Shmuel’s ideas develop is a man who believes so fiercely in Jesus that he wants the whole world to see His glory – with devastating results. Judas as the first, and only, true Christian? It’s certainly an intriguing idea…
Of course, a whole novel describing second-hand research is hardly the stuff of prize winners, so it’s just as well that Judas works on several other levels too. The success of the Judas strand is tied to the parallels Oz draws with a more modern traitor, Shealtiel Abravanel, a man shunned by his people for swimming against the tide of the Zionist independence movement in the hope of promoting a more inclusive environment in the region. When war becomes ‘inevitable’, Abravanel drops out of public life, and events in the ensuing conflict complete his downfall, leaving him a shattered man.
Much of the novel takes place in the old house Shmuel moves into, one which acts both as a haven from the outside world and a self-imposed prison for the survivors of the turbulent past. Despite their formidable characters, both Atalia and Gershom are shattered creatures, and the air Shmuel breathes there, while calming and restful, is actually stifling. This hothouse atmosphere can only increase the young man’s attracttion to Atalia, despite Gershom’s warnings:
“Listen to me, Shmuel. be careful, don’t fall in love with her. You’re not strong enough for that.”
Then he added:
“There were three or four lads here before you, to keep me company. Most of them fell in love and apparently she may have pitied one or two of them for a night or two. Then she sent them packing. In the end they all left here broken-hearted. But it was not her fault. Truly not. You cannot blame her. She has a kind of cool warmth, some kind of aloofness that attracts you to her like moths to a flame. Sometimes I’m sorry for you. You’re still a bit of a child.” (p.162)
All true enough, but this time away from the land of the living might just be what Shmuel needs to finally grow up.
The choice of the time the novel is set in is also important. Jerusalem is surrounded on three sides by hostile forces, but with the war over, it seems as if the fate of the nation is secure. However, in our own little corner of the city, not everyone is so optimistic. Whether rabidly nationalistic (like Atalia), a supporter of integration (like her father) or simply more realistic (like Gershom), they realise that in the long-term, the young country is bound to come under attack, with little chance of banishing the threats around it forever. The conversations that resound around the echoey living room may be about Israel then, but it’s difficult (impossible, even) to believe that the writer doesn’t intend them to be a criticism of the country now:
“Why should they love us? Why do you think the Arabs are not entitled to resist strangers who come here suddenly as if from another planet and take away their land and their soil, fields, villages and towns, the graves of their ancestors and their children’s inheritance?” (p.90)
Plus ça change…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
This is an interesting one. It took me a long time to get into Judas, and I can’t say I was seriously considering it for the shortlist until well into the book. However, it’s certainly excellently written (all credit to de Lange, Oz’s longtime collaborator, for a sterling effort here), and there’s definitely a depth to it that other works on the longlist may lack. It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this review, and the fact that I can still remember it fairly accurately probably speaks more for Judas than all the bluster above. I suspect that this may just sneak into my top six, and if I were to reread all of our shortlist, it might prove to be one of the better choices.
Will it make the shortlist?
I’ll say yes. This is a book that will probably stand up to multiple reads better than many others (and, of course, that’s the stage the official judges are up to now). In many ways, this is the most ‘English-feeling’ translated book I’ve read for some time, and there’s a sense that this could have come straight from the other Man Booker prize longlist…
…I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s praise or criticism 😉
The Jerusalem winter was a fairly cold one, so we might treat ourselves to some sun next as we head down to central Africa. Our first stop will be in an orphanage, but we’ll soon be venturing out onto the mean streets in the company of an enterprising young man trying to make a living in an unfamiliar world. As different as it all may sound, there is a connection with our last stop, though, in the form of another Biblical reference. However, if there’s any love going on here, it’s unlikely to be of the Christian variety…