Book of a lifetime: A Tale of Love and Darkness, By Amos Oz


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The Independent Culture

When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. But not books: however systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive".

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a memoir set in a land of survivors: the scholars, shopkeepers, camp survivors and "suntanned pioneers" who in the aftermath of the Second World War came from all over Europe to the promised land of Israel. The British Mandate had ended; the UN vote on 29 November 1947 offered, at last, the creation of two states, one Jewish, one Arab. From now on, Oz's father tells him, weeping, "you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew."

Within hours, the streets of Jerusalem rang with gunfire; within months the city was under siege. The bitterness within that divided land remain. But this memoir is anything but bitter. It explores not only the birth of a nation-state but the coming of age of its narrator. Its sensibility, of ruthless honesty, deep humanity, is inflected with humour and tenderness; its powers of observation, listening and recall take the reader from the cramped little flat where Oz lived with his parents to the brilliant sun of the kibbutz to which he escaped after his mother's suicide.

The histories it encompasses begin in that dark little flat. Between them, his librarian father and teacher mother spoke almost 20 languages. Books lined walls and corridor. "The worldatlarge" is discovered through their pages; through a stamp collection; through dominoes set out as battlefields; through his father's unstoppable river of talk. Poetry and myth came from his mother's childhood stories.

Though this tight little trio form the heart of the book, other members of the family play huge roles: Grandma Slomit, spraying bedding, clothes and carpets with DDT each morning; scholarly Uncle Joseph, visited each Sunday afternoon. And the narrative is haunted by a trio who perished: Uncle David, his wife and little son, the ghostly cousin always there, as Oz himself grows older.

I love and admire this memoir for its tender understanding of so many things; for its structure, in which the voice of an aunt can take over for a hundred pages; in which future events are signalled, erupt, are set aside, returned to; for its style, a breathtaking conjunction of the large and small. It is a masterpiece. It is a book without reading which no life is complete. I truly believe that.

Sue Gee's new novel, 'Coming Home', is published by Headline Review