Simon Louvish spots flaws in an Israeli hero

Panther in the Basement by Amos Oz, Vintage, pounds 6.99

In our "obligatory review" culture, a narrowly defined canon of fiction is given space, regardless of merit, to the detriment of books judged surplus to requirements. Thus the Israeli novelist Amos Oz has been elevated by reviewers ignorant of Hebrew writing to a status as "the conscience of Israel". "One of the greatest prose writers in contemporary fiction," said The Times. Oh yeah? The success of Oz, both abroad and in Israel, has come about, in my view, because of his special talent for packaging banal concepts in an elegant and impeccably liberal format. Here is a case in point: a novella about a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Jerusalem in the last days of British colonial rule, around 1947, who is obsessed by his peers' accusations of treachery against him for his alleged friendship with an English soldier.

The young "Proffy", son of a scholar of Polish history, is playing out the game of Hebrew resistance against the deadlier, real terrorist activities of the underground Irgun movement. He is a typical nerd of his period, full of gauche ideas about girls and the kind of cliches of patriotic sacrifice that made successive Israeli generations blind to the damage inflicted on their Palestinian neighbours.

Oz has opted out of dealing with any of the hard consequences of this adolescent idiocy, and chosen a soft, rites-of-passage narrative. At times it achieves genuine poignancy, as in the boy's description of his father's prodigious library, carried forth from a world which pretended to value ideas but drowned itself in blood. But the whole thing is mostly harmless froth, though elegantly rendered, as always, by Oz's loyal translator, Nicholas de Lange. Nevertheless, Oz's latest bittersweet spoonful of nostalgia will do for a summer afternoon.

The dedicated foreign reader may be aware that Israel has produced other writers - such as David Grossman - whose works go far deeper. But the lottery of translation excludes huge swaths of more challenging writing. Even when translated, good works are still ignored. Most criminally, the two astounding Proustian novels of Ya'akov Shabtai, Past Continuous and Past Perfect, were both published in the US to familiar commercial disdain. Another popular writer, Meir Shalev, has also failed to penetrate the English-speaking realm. Readers may know of AB Yehoshua, Oz's twin, but not of Yitzhak Ben-Ner, Sami Michael or a host of others - such as the maverick Emile Habibi, whose Arabic work, in the Hebrew renditions by Anton Shamas, was sufficiently recognised as a force in modern Israel to earn him the prestigious Israel Prize.

For those crazy enough to want to get a handle on a literary world that fully reflects the turmoil and diversity of contemporary lsrael, I suggest an order note to City Lights Books at 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133, US, for Ammiel Alcalay's Keys to the Garden (a snip at $18.95). This fascinating anthology of work by Israel's "Sephardic" writers includes segments by such talents as Albert Swissa, Erez Elitton, Amira Hess, Bracha Serri and Samir Naqqash. Uniquely, Naqqash is a Jewish writer who writes in Arabic, in Israel. He'll never get into the New York Times Book Review that way!

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor