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!

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power