A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz trans Nicholas de Lange

The pain of a lonely pioneer
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The Independent Culture

Amos Oz is the world's best-known living Hebrew writer. His novels of everyday life, love and loss in Israel have been translated into many languages. Although he strenuously rejects political readings of his fiction, Oz is a fixture of the beleaguered Israeli peace camp. Thanks to his interventions in the Hebrew press, in articles routinely translated for European and US newspapers, he is considered the voice of Israel's conscience.

So it comes as a surprise to learn from this baggy, mesmerising autobiography that he grew up in a right-wing nationalist milieu and was a follower of Menahem Begin until his early teens. This is only one revelation in a memoir that defies easy description. It is just as much a family chronicle illuminating Jewish history over the last century, an account of the waning British mandate for Palestine, and an intimate portrait of Jerusalem during the first, austere years of the State of Israel.

Interleaved with recollections of his childhood, Oz reconstructs the world of his parents and grandparents, sometimes surrendering the narrative to them. But fans of his novels, with their lean prose, may find this hard going. The writing is dense, repetitive, almost liturgical.

There are slabs of history and genealogy. The superb translation by Nicholas de Lange manages to convey both the modernity of the original Hebrew and its archaic inspiration. It is less surprising to learn that Oz spent several years at a religious school absorbing the language of the Bible and the rabbis.

Amos Klausner was born in Jerusalem in 1939. His father's family had arrived in Palestine a few years earlier from Lithuania via Odessa. They were typical of the east European Jews who embraced modern "enlightenment" and convinced themselves they had become true Europeans, only to see their illusions stripped away by unremitting anti-Semitism. They hoped to end the pain of rejection by settling in the Jewish homeland. As it turned out, they simply took their anxieties with them and found cause for even more.

His mother, Fania Mussman, came from an enlightened family in Rovno, Poland, and studied at Prague University. With the help of his Aunt Sonia, whose voice takes over the narration, Oz powerfully evokes the precarious existence of Polish Jews "living on a volcano". Every interaction with non-Jews was guarded for fear of causing a provocation. The result was a corrosive loss of self-respect and a corresponding adulation of "the Land" where Jews could feel free.

Yet in Palestine, where intellectuals were two-a-penny, Arieh Klausner could not get the lectureship he felt his European education merited. He increasingly resented the egalitarian pioneer society. Fania, whom he met soon after her arrival in 1938, seemed trapped in the romantic novels she imbibed in Europe and was unsuited to the rigours of life in a developing country: "Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the 19th century." Amos was born soon after they married and Fania was "shut up" with him in their tiny home: "Life in our flat resembled life in a submarine."

Jerusalem was full of "dislocated people" operating in a rough-hewn language that made it hard to express deep thoughts or emotions. The new arrivals were confused about their status and stalked by "shame and disgrace". As a sense of failure enveloped both parents all their aspirations were projected onto Amos. He was encouraged to become a show-off. His father's "humorous" lectures on etymology, his mother's story-telling, and a distinctly odd private school, helped to turn him into a book-obsessed "word child".

Whether because of disorientation, knowledge that her family had been murdered by the Nazis, or her husband's emotional distance, Fania descended into paralysing depression. During these spells, father and son functioned "like a pair of stretcher-bearers". When Amos was 12 she committed suicide. His first response was rage; later he blamed himself and developed a crippling sense of guilt. But he could not discuss any of this with his emotionally stunted father.

The teenage Amos rebelled against everything his parents represented, left home for a rural school and settled on Kibbutz Hulda - to his father's horror. In addition to acquiring a tan and musculature to better resemble the heroic pioneers, Oz completed his political transformation from ranting nationalist into a pragmatic "dove". It was there, too, that he realised his vocation was to become a writer of everyday life. But it was not until this monumental life story that he openly confronted his relationship with his parents, their unhappiness, and his inner demons.

David Cesarani's 'Eichmann: his Life and Crimes' is published by Heinemann