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Amos Oz: Worthy of literature’s highest honour (©Uzi Varon)

Which living writer could combine the following disparate themes in one short novel? Judas embraces a learned debate about the eponymous disciple of Jesus, seen from a Jewish rather than a Christian standpoint; an evocation of Israel’s 1948 war of independence; a reminiscence of still-divided Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60; and the no less wintry romance of a depressed student and the embittered widow of a war hero. The answer is, of course, Amos Oz.

Judas is a great novel that only Oz could have written — not just because parts of it are so obviously autobiographical. (Doubtless others are not so obvious to this reader.) The period to which he has returned in his late seventies is also the one when he met and married his wife Nily. He is about the same age as his protagonist, the asthmatic, maddeningly passive yet highly intelligent Shmuel Ash.

And it is easy to imagine the young Oz, who spent two decades living on a kibbutz, belonging to a far-left groupuscule such as Shmuel’s Socialist Renewal Group, which falls apart over allegiance to the young Marx versus the old Marx: “Among the four who split off were the two girls in the Group, without whom there was no longer any point.”

Shmuel thinks there is no longer any point in anything. His girlfriend has dumped him for a hydrologist and he has abandoned his Master’s thesis on “Jewish Views of Jesus”. He has done so despite the strictures of Professor Eisenschloss, his supervisor, who makes appearances as a living embodiment of the Kantian categorical imperative, urging him to return to duty, and despite the appeals of his parents, living far away in Haifa, and his sister, even further away in Italy.

But in his predicament, hopeless but not serious, Shmuel finds an escape route. He answers an advertisement for a companion, offering board and lodging plus a stipend in return for spending five hours every evening with an elderly invalid. The latter, Gershom Wald, turns out to be a highly cultured former history teacher who lives with his daughter-in-law, Atalia. From the moment that Shmuel arrives at 17 Rabbi Elbaz Lane, with its courtyard on a desolate hillside towards the Valley of the Cross, with its broken step and his attic room up a spiral staircase, he becomes a somnambulist, mesmerised by this book-lined microcosm of Israel. There is a chilling air of melancholy and mystery around the house, which is never entirely dispelled.

There are two ghostly presences in the house, however, which lead the story back to the origins of Israel. It had belonged to Shealtiel Abravanel, Atalia’s father, once a prominent Zionist but a fierce opponent of Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and all those who sought to create a state for the Jewish people. The other spectre is of Micha, Atalia’s husband and Wald’s only son, who was killed in the 1948 war that gave birth to the Jewish state. Neither of the bereaved has ever come to terms with their grief, but live in a kind of suspended animation.

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