A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS
By Amos Oz. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
Harcourt. 538 pp. $26
Of all the terrible questions that Alice is asked in Wonderland, the most terrible is puffed out by the hookah-smoking Caterpillar: "Who Are You?" As Alice knows, the question has no answer. The only speck of the world that must remain invisible to us is our self. In our own eyes, we can be nothing but looking-glass images, always plural, the reflections that others send back to us and that we incessantly make ours or reject. An autobiography is therefore at best a kaleidoscopic pattern of imagined memories and intuitive leaps that portrays not one author but several, or at least a protean author moving endlessly between past and present, ignorance and experience, reflection and surprise. As such, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz's autobiography is utterly successful.
Both in his fiction and his essays, Oz has proven himself one of our essential writers, laying out for our observation, in ever-increasing breadth and profundity, the mad landscape of our time and his place -- always enlarging the scope of his questions while avoiding the temptation of dogmatic answers. His latest exploration, A Tale of Love and Darkness (beautifully translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange) appears to merely chronicle Oz's life from childhood in British-ruled Jerusalem to literary fame in Kibbutz Hulda, where Oz (born Amos Braz) still lives and where he adopted his nom de plume. But there are no single straight lines in Oz's narratives; for him, all things are plural. The family house where he grew up; the languages spoken by his family; the complex personalities of its members; the books that crowded the shelves of his widely read parents and turned the boy into "a word child"; the recurrent references to his mother and her death when the boy was just 12 (a death that, we learn halfway through the book, was a suicide); the state about to be born in a world still bloody from the war; the crowds of refugees and pioneers and survivors that peopled it; Oz's literary masters, ranging from Chekhov (in Hebrew) to Sherwood Anderson (in English): Every event, every factual detail, every discovery opens myriad doors to other events, facts and unexpected revelations. The writer who attempts his autobiography is, Oz suggests, like a man who "knocks on the door of a house where he is a regular visitor and where he is used to being very warmly received, but when the door opens, a stranger suddenly looks out at him and recoils in surprise, as though asking, Who are you, sir, and why exactly are you here?"
I felt an eerie sense of deja vu reading Oz's description of the daily goings-on during the early years of the state of Israel. My father was named Argentina's ambassador to Israel when I was only a few months old, and the first seven years of my life were spent in the same Babel as Oz's, where adults switched to other languages to avoid being understood by the children and where conversation drifted from German to Russian, from Spanish (in my case) or Polish (in Oz's) to French and English and Yiddish, when not to the rigors of Hebrew. The same "scholars, musicians and writers" described by Oz, the same "Tolstoyans" (whom Oz's parents referred to as "Tolstoyshchiks"), the same "cultivated Englishmen with perfect manners," the same "cultured Jews or educated Arabs" glided in and out of my childhood world as they did in Oz's. And of course the same Holocaust survivors, of whom my governess had told me I must never ask anything, especially not the meaning of the black numbers tattooed on their arms, and whose rage was solid, palpable, like that of the old man whom Oz describes hissing words full of hatred at him and his playmates: "A million Kinder they killed! Kiddies like you! Slaughtered them!" -- as though, Oz adds, "he were cursing us."
Oz describes what it was (and is) like to live in a country that, since its inception, has been constantly under threat; and he tells of the painful relationship between Arab and Jew. "In the lives of individuals and of peoples, too, the worst conflicts are often those that break out between those who are persecuted," he writes. "It is mere wishful thinking to imagine that the persecuted and the oppressed will unite out of solidarity and man the barricades together against a ruthless oppressor. . . . Often each sees in the other not a partner in misfortune but in fact the image of their own common oppressor." Arabs, says Oz, see Israeli Jews not as "a bunch of half-hysterical survivors but a new offshoot of Europe, with its colonialism, technical sophistication and exploitation, that has cleverly returned to the Middle East," while Israelis see Arabs not as "fellow victims" but as "pogrom-making Cossacks, bloodthirsty anti-Semites, Nazis in disguise, as if our European persecutors have reappeared here in the Land of Israel, put keffiyehs on their heads and grown moustaches, but they are still our old murderers interested only in slitting Jews' throats for fun."
It is impossible to give a full account of this book's riches. Oz has allowed his autobiography to flow along a rocky course, with numerous starts and various endings. Wisely, he does not impose the restrictive method ordered by another of Wonderland's creatures: "Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop." Oz knows that every autobiography is circular and that, even though the writer begins telling his story at the moment when the book must end, the points of entry are legion. The first words of A Tale of Love and Darkness are the conventional ones -- "I was born" -- but many times throughout the book Oz offers the reader other possible starting places: "I was an only child," or "Almost sixty years have gone by, yet I can still remember his smell," or "Every morning, a little before or a little after sunrise, I am in the habit of going out to discover what is new in the desert," or "I was actually a very easy child. . . . " To the impossible question of the Caterpillar, Oz answers with a multitude of reflections, each one essential and each one necessarily incomplete.
Halfway through A Tale of Love and Darkness, in what could be yet another beginning scene, Oz hears the first chords of Beethoven's "Für Elise" played by a girl he calls Nemucheleh, "stumbling over and over again, always in the same place, and each time trying again," while a bird he calls Elise replies to her "over and over again" with the famous five first notes. The repeated, ever-beginning tune may serve as a model for reading this extraordinary, luminous, wise and important book -- each new attempt at commencement strengthened by preceding ones, and by the ones to come. Oz's last words, describing the tragedy of his mother's death, support this suggestion. After taking a handful of sleeping pills and falling into a sleep free at last from nightmares, she is rushed to the hospital, where doctors try to wake her. But, Oz tells us, "she did not wake up in the morning either, or even when the day grew brighter, and from the branches of the ficus tree in the garden of the hospital the bird Elise called to her in wonderment and called to her again and again in vain, and yet it went on trying over and over again, and it still tries sometimes."
Alberto Manguel is the author of numerous books, including "A History of Reading."