Shmuel Ash is a clever, clumsy and contented research student living in Jerusalem at the end of 1959: his master’s (on Jewish views of Jesus) is on track, he enjoys his membership of the Socialist Renewal group, and he believes that he is happily engaged to Yardena (who has the measure of him, saying that he is either “like an excited puppy, rushing around noisily”, or “the opposite, lying on [his] bed for days on end like an unaired quilt”). Then, with the sort of de facto decisiveness that we find in late plays by Shakespeare, disaster falls. His parents are no longer able to give him financial support; he abandons his research; the Socialist Renewal group falls apart and Yardena rejects him in order to marry a “compliant hydrologist”. In other words, Judas is a novel – the first from Amos Oz in more than 10 years, and a very absorbing addition to his remarkable oeuvre – that begins with endings.
New narratives that drive the remainder of the book spring from these initial setbacks. Shmuel becomes the companion to Gershom Wald, an ancient and reclusive character who lives in a half-buried house on the western fringe of Jerusalem. Here he also meets Atalia, a woman of 45 whose beauty and composure immediately bewitch him, and who he assumes is Wald’s wife. “Mistress”, Wald says – but that’s not right either. It’s the first and most obvious of several narrative uncertainties that form the framework of the novel, translated from Hebrew into English by Nicholas de Lange.
The framework, but not the essence. As Shmuel begins to explore the history of Wald and Atalia, it becomes clear that Oz is more interested in the political and religious questions that surround them than he is in nuanced characterisation. In the same way, the physical life of the book has an air not quite of perfunctoriness, but at least of the dressing-up box. Its people have a cartoonish quality, with their bushy beards (Shmuel), or smell of almonds (Atalia), or “Einstein moustache” and “a nose as sharp as the beak of a thirsty bird” (Wald): they are chiefly interesting as a means of expressing ideas.
Some of these ideas originate with Shmuel himself. Although he has set aside his research, his mind keeps harking back to its subject – which means the text is punctuated with instances of Jewish views of Jesus, ranging from the earliest, a brief documentary account by Flavius Josephus, to 20th-century historian Joseph Klausner (Jesus “was born a Jew and he died a Jew and it never occurred to him to found a new religion”). These fascinate Shmuel in their own right, and provide the present of the novel with a set of shifting historical counterweights. They also propel him towards the centre of his inquiry – which is to revise the traditional interpretation of the figure of Judas. Shmuel believes that, far from being a traitor, Judas was “the most loyal and devoted of all [Christ’s] disciples and … meant to prove his greatness to the whole world”.
This question (how faith might be mistaken as disloyalty), and the other issues it contains (including the ways in which belief can become excessive and therefore a liability), are refracted by Wald and Atalia. Atalia, it turns out, is not only the widow of Wald’s son Mica, who was tortured and killed in the war of 1948, but the daughter of his (now deceased) philosophical sparring partner, Shealtiel Abravanel. Whereas Wald remains a devoted admirer of Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion, Abravanel “tried in vain to persuade Ben-Gurion in ’48 that it was still possible to reach an agreement with the Arabs about the departure of the British and the creation of a single joint condominium of Jews and Arabs, if only we agreed to renounce the idea of a Jewish state”.
Open borders or separate identity; trust or suspicion; one interpretation of the need for true faith, or a different interpretation of the same need: Oz presents the clash of idealisms in such a way as to allow Israel’s recent past to reverberate in the present, while at the same time connecting them to the much more ancient Judas story that fascinates Shmuel. It’s a complex and impressive achievement, and although it can lead to characters speaking with a degree of articulacy that makes ordinary conversation seem like formal debate, Oz is also conscious of the need to keep things human and humane.
Atalia is essential in this respect, especially after Shmuel has tumbled over a step in Wald’s tumbledown house, and injured himself so that he briefly becomes more cared-for than carer. Although her character is made to seem appealing in rather predictable ways (she’s beautiful, enigmatic and sexually confident – as well as smelling of almonds), the spell that she casts over the much less experienced Shmuel is plausible enough, and means that the book’s drama of argument is mediated by the sweetness of a little romance.
This seems all the more valuable at the end of the story, when Shmuel realises that his future lies not with her, but in the continuance of his own independent “wondering” – strengthened by the resilience she has helped to build in him. It is in this questioning spirit that he accepts her decision that he must leave Wald’s employment, and imagines he might now continue with his plan to write The Gospel According to Judas. The story, that is, of someone whom history considers a traitor, but whose tragedy was to love his leader too well, and to expect a miraculous revelation of divinity when no such thing was possible.
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