Shadow with two sides

PANTHER IN THE BASEMENT by Amos Oz, Vintage pounds 5.99
Click to follow
The pen may or may not be mightier than the sword, but is it as dashing? This is one of the dilemmas facing 12-year-old Proffy. Pale, thin, angular, he is coming of age in Jerusalem in 1947. Fellow Jews are fighting for a Hebrew State of Israel. Even enjoying Hollywood movies (as he does, enormously) is a betrayal: he could instead be laying nails on roads for the occupiers' trucks.

This small novel, a packed 122 pages, has been hugely successful in Israel. It comes out of Oz's preoccupation with what it's like to live in Jerusalem through various stages of its history. But this return to the "last summer of British rule" is particularly accessible. The now adult narrator climbs back inside his boyhood self and reclaims a voice that's vivid, poignant and often funny.

The words "PROFI BOGED SHAFEL", "Proffy is a lowdown traitor", have been painted on Proffy's house. Summoned to Tel Arza woods by his own three- boy FOD (Freedom or Death) Underground organisation, he feels guilty and confused. Proffy stands accused of "loving the enemy" in the form of Sergeant Dunlop, a balding, pink-kneed army accountant who learned Hebrew from the Bible. They meet when Sergeant Dunlop catches Proffy out after curfew. "Whither dost thou hasten?" he asks. The "hand of the enemy" is on his shoulder, and to Proffy's horror he finds he'd rather keep it there than face the streets alone.

Amos Oz conjures the atmosphere of Jerusalem under siege in lyrical, economic prose. British armoured cars have "their slits almost closed, like eyes dazzled by the sunlight". The stone city sprawled over hills is populated by a community of bereaved "pioneers" escaped from Nazi Europe: "We had lots of people who talked to thin air." The child's-eye view makes the invasion of the personal by politics especially affecting. This is a time and place where a wedding can be followed immediately by the groom's suicide. Proffy can't have a usual rite of passage in which innocence is lost, because innocence has been by-passed.

One motif is a blue wooden shutter, which the narrator's mother once threw into a river and expected to return, suggesting that history is not linear but circular. Sergeant Dunlop worries that Arabs will in the Hebrew State become the new Jews. In the climate of the current Arab-Israeli talks, it seems that Oz's blue shutter will continue coming round. Yet Oz wants nothing more than for betrayers and betrayed to sit down together and talk: "Even a shadow has two sides." Amos Oz has been heralded as Israel's voice of conscience. He's also a phenomenally good story-teller.