“Judas,” a new novel by Amos Oz, is a paradox of stillness and provocation. The Israeli author, a long-rumored contender for the Nobel Prize, has reduced the physical action of this story to a tableau of domestic grief. But beneath a scene of fermented woe, he incites a storm of theological and political arguments about the founding of Israel and the origins of Christianity.
The plot sounds almost repellently static. In the opening pages, set around 1960, Shmuel Ash, a young graduate student in Jerusalem, loses his girlfriend and his parents’ allowance. Despondent, he abandons his master’s thesis and takes a job as a companion to an elderly intellectual named Wald, who “larded his speech with quotations and allusions, witticisms and plays on words.” In exchange for room and board and a modest paycheck, Shmuel agrees to talk and argue with Wald from 5 to 11 o’clock every evening. Beyond that, he must only feed the fish, bring in a cup of tea and swear never to reveal anything he hears within these walls.
There’s a touch of mystery in this sepulchral house, but it’s the riddle of sorrow, not intrigue. Wald’s only son was killed in 1948 while serving in the Israeli army. Since then, the old man has floated on a wave of disputation, talking himself to life one day after another, spilling out a flood of ironic and learned verbiage to keep despair from closing over him entirely. His widowed daughter-in-law, Atalia, now lives with him, too, contributing her own diamond-hard sadness to this crippled little family. That Shmuel will fall in love with Atalia is obvious to all three of them; that she will break his heart is obvious to everyone but Shmuel.
Plotless novels about lost young men represent a tedious subgenre of contemporary literature, but, naturally, Oz rises above that by rendering his hapless hero so comically sympathetic. Shmuel is large, hairy and embarrassingly prone to weeping. “He was kindhearted, generous, brimming with goodwill,” Oz writes, “and as soft as a woolen glove, going out of his way to make himself useful, but at the same time he was muddled and impatient.” His ex-girlfriend complains that he’s either rushing about like “an excited puppy” or lying around like “an unaired quilt.” Wald’s grim home, with its “walls accustomed to swallowing pain,” seems like the least appropriate place for him to regain his bearings.
“Judas,” winner of Germany’s International Literature Prize, depends entirely on the complexity of Oz’s themes and the tender elegance of his style, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange. Two vexing issues screw through the novel like a double helix. One involves Shmuel’s research on Jewish attitudes toward Jesus. He has some vague idea that this is somehow connected to “the fate of social reformers in modern times.” His studies lead him through ancient polemics in which Jewish scholars tried to discredit Christianity by exposing its historical and theological inconsistencies. But Shmuel is particularly drawn to the Gospel character of Judas, that foundational figure in the history of Western anti-Semitism. To his mind, the world’s most famous traitor was, in fact, the world’s first and most devoted Christian. Judas hadn’t intended to murder Jesus by handing him over for crucifixion; he’d intended to provoke Jesus into demonstrating his divinity.
Judas as misguided idealist who inadvertently triggered the salvation of mankind: That interpretation — not original to Shmuel or Oz — has a certain appeal, regardless of its theological complications. But in this novel, that characterization serves as a curious archetype for reviled idealists in modern-day Israel. Specifically, as Shmuel gets to know Atalia, he learns that she is the daughter of a notorious leader of the Jewish community who dared to argue that Israel should not establish its own country but instead work to live in stateless harmony with its Arab neighbors. He was eventually castigated by Israel’s first prime minister and branded a traitor.
Although a certain degree of familiarity with mid-20th-century political history is helpful, Oz gracefully weaves that exposition into this novel of ideas. And although the story certainly involves arguments about the Israeli-Arab conflict that Oz has made in his nonfiction work, it never reads like an allegory of the author’s political views. For one thing, Atalia is too shocked by her own loss to care about such arguments anymore. Wald, meanwhile, is too Talmudic to settle on any particular position, except his deep skepticism of “universal love.” He sees such boundless claims as the slogans of all political oppressors. “I’d rather they left us all the pain and sorrow and kept their world reform for themselves,” he tells Shmuel, “seeing that it always involves slaughter, crusades, jihad or gulag, or the wars of Gog and Demagogue.”
It’s left to Shmuel, buffeted about by his research and his deepening devotion to his two wounded housemates, to determine exactly what it means to be a traitor. And it’s left to us, drawn through this rare, intellectual novel, to wrestle with Oz’s reflections on the viability of idealism in an imperfect world.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
By Amos Oz
HMH. 305 pp. $25