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!

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