The shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize (@ManBookerPrize) was announced in April with the following six novels making it to the top: Compass by Mathias Enard (France), A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin (Argentina) and Judas by Amos Oz (Israel). The winner will be announced on June 14, 2017.
I have already written about Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and also The Traitor’s Niche by Albanian author Ismail Kadare that had made it to the longlist.
I recently finished Judas by Amos Oz (born 1939) – professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and Israel’s most famous living author. Some of his other notable books are A Tale of Love and Darkness, Scenes from Village Life, Between Friends and My Michael. Judas has been translated into English by Nicholas de Lange, a professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Cambridge.
When I first saw the title and the cover of the book (top left version) and learnt about the reputation of the writer, I hesitated to read the work, thinking it might be too “elite”. It is indeed loaded with very big and important ideas going in all sorts of directions but what makes Judas accessible, ultimately, to one and all is its simple underlying “coming-of-age” template.
The book burgeons with (often quite provocative) perspectives – on the formation and identity of Israel, the Jewish views of Jesus, the Christian views of Judas, love and hate, power and nation states, the nature of allegiance and treason, etc. Since I haven’t written much on Judaism and the Jewish experience in history (just posts on a novel called For Two Thousands Years by Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian and metal sculptures of the body by Tel Aviv-based Ofer Rubin), I thought of picking this one up.
The period is 1959-60. The place is Jerusalem – a still-divided city (a battle in 1948 had made the Israelis capture the West and the Jordanians capture the East). Shmuel Ash is a twenty-five-old idealistic (and, at times, crazily emotional) student of history and religion who has been forced to abandon his MA thesis (on the “Jewish Views of Jesus”) – and with that the dreams of a future academic career. His father’s finances have collapsed, his allowance has been cut. His girlfriend Yardena has ditched him and married her former boyfriend – Nesher Sharshevsky, a hard-working hydrologist (specialist in “rainwater collection”). Adrift, without resources, Shmuel must urgently look for work.
Shmuel discovers a note on the campus noticeboard for a paid position. A companion is needed for an old man called Gershom Wald; he wants to be read to, argued with. The young student responds and is led to a strange house, where, along with the old man, he finds a woman in her 40s – Atalia Abravanel, Wald’s daughter-in-law – mysterious, attractive, haunted by ghosts from the past. Shmuel is taken by both the figures. Drawn to the former’s intellectual vigour and the latter’s sexual appeal.
As these three characters interact over the winter – against the hum of the domestic rituals of cooking and cleaning – they open themselves up and find themselves changed. Sweeping concepts in religion, history, politics are debated and discussed. Texts on the Jewish reception of Jesus are mixed with paragraphs on the Christian perception of Judas. According to the received wisdom of the popular mind, Judas – the ugly, greedy traitor – is synonymous with “the Jew” itself. All anti-Semitism in Western Civilisation, it is indicated in the novel…pogroms, the Inquisition, blood libels, the Holocaust…emerged from this reprehensible image in the New Testament. Gershom Wald points out: “And so that is indeed what the Jews possess in the deepest recesses of the Jew-hater’s imagination. We are all Judas.”
And yet, the role of Judas is also seen from a sympathetic perspective. For Shmuel Ash, Judas has an important role in the saga of salvation. By abandoning Jesus, selling him off, he actually gives him an opportunity to realise and display his greatness. [Such positive reassessments have been around for a long time. Saint Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican preacher (1350–1419) is believed to have asserted that Judas was on God’s side. A Biblical scholar named William Klassen wrote a book called Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? in 2004.]
There are other traitors in and around the story. Atalia’s father Sheatiel Abravanel is called a traitor for passionately believing in the brotherhood between Arabs and Jews, for having opposed Ben-Gurion’s radical nationalistic approach to the founding of modern Israel. Outside this piece of fiction, the author himself has been referred to as a traitor by his countrymen – for proposing a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He has acknowledged this designation as a badge of honour.
The intense intellectual (and sexual) drama of Judas concludes in tender, touching moments. And although several tough issues remain (understandably) unresolved, one powerful observation is etched in the reader’s mind: “Every so often in history, courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics.” Why, Abraham Lincoln, the liberator of the slaves, was called a traitor by his opponents, the German officers who tried to assassinate Hitler were executed as traitors…
Read Judas – a multi-layered, multi-faceted narrative that superbly articulates the ambiguities and complexities of human life and culture – if you want to entertain yourself with an old-fashioned novel of ideas (particularly if you appreciate the traditions of Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann).
Part of a conversation between Shmuel Ash and Gershom Wald:
SA: All the power in the world. Take the combined power of the Soviet Union and the United States and France and Britain. What can you not achieve with such power, by any manner or means?
GW: I think that with such power you could conquer whatever you felt like. From sea to sea.
SA: That’s what you think. That’s what the Jews in Israel think because they have no notion of the limits of power. The fact is that all the power in the world cannot transform someone who hates you into someone who likes you. It can turn a foe into a slave, but not into a friend. All the power in the world cannot transform a fanatic into an enlightened man. All the power in the world cannot transform someone thirsting for vengeance into a lover. And yet these are precisely the real existential challenges facing the State of Israel: how to turn a hater into a lover, a fanatic into a moderate, an avenger into a friend.
Am I saying that we do not need military might? Heaven forbid! Such a foolish thought would never enter my head. I know as well as you that it is power, military power, that stands, at any given moment, even at this very moment while you and I are arguing here, between us and extinction. Power has the power to prevent our annihilation for the time being. On condition that we always remember, at every moment, that in a situation like ours power can only prevent. It can’t settle anything and it can’t solve anything. It can only stave off disaster for a while.
Featured: Detail from Betrayal of Christ by Caspar Isenmann (1410-1472), Wikimedia Commons