My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my first read by Amor Oz, who is (although I didn't realise it at the time) a hugely prolific author. I found it hard to get into, and would probably not have believed you at the start if you told me I ended up giving it a well-deserved four stars! Let me explain.
The year is 1959, winter in Jerusalem. Shmuel, a student, has had his life turned upside down. His father's financial issues mean he cannot support him any longer which coincides with his long-term girlfriend leaving him for her previous boyfriend, the 'taciturn hydrologist,' Nesher Sharshevesky. Dismayed and heartbroken, Shmuel leaves the university behind him; his thesis on 'Jewish Views of Jesus' had come to a block anyway. Drowning in self-pity, his intrigue is piqued by a sign put up, asking for a companion 'with modest conversation skills and an interest in history' to a 'seventy-year-old invalid, an educated and widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.' As Shmuel has been a member of a Socialist group, recently disbanded, he fancies himself a good talker and with bed and board included, this job seems right.
Gershom Wald, the invalid, turns out to want someone to argue and debate with or perhaps, more accurately, to listen to his homilies. From his little attic room, Shmuel puzzles over the arrangement of this house. Gerhsom lives with his ex daughter-in-law Atalia, whose husband's death is never spoken of. Neither is her father's, although Shmuel gathers that at one point that they had all shared the house together.
This book has a slow start, and I struggled to get into it. The language can be quite long-winded at times, as well as repetitive: Shmuel's walking is described as:
'His head was thrust forward as if he were butting the air or forcing his way through obstacles, his body bent forward and his legs hurrying so as not to be left behind...'
multiple times (although paraphrased.) I felt like saying 'enough already! We know how he walks!' But this was a minor thing in relation to the novel in its entirety.
Essentially, there are three strands of plot woven cleverly through the book. On a surface level, there is Shmuel's current circumstances, his gradual intoxication of the unreachable, elusive Atalia, and the uncovering of parts of her world. She is a woman not meant for men, and says so boldly. Previous tenants have come and gone, fallen in love with her, and sent away; Wald warns Shmuel about this, but also recognises its inevitability.
We also learn a lot about Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60, and the years leading up to it: a fascinating history lesson in Ben Gurion and the setting up of Israel as a state. Knowing very little when I went in, I now want to learn more; I always believe that any well-written novel makes the reader want to read further. Wald and Atalia's late father had completely opposing views: Wald believing that Ben Gurion was right and violence was necessary for Jews to reclaim their homeland, whereas Atalia's father, perhaps naively, was adamant that a peaceful settlement could be arranged. When Atalalia's husband died, silence severed the house. Shmuel's job is to partially alleviate this historic silence.
The third strand is where the title of the novel comes into play: Judas. Through their debates, and through Shmuel's musings and his thesis, Judas is central character, but off-stage. Shmuel, himself atheist, poses the proposition that without Judas Christianity would not exist.
...if there had been no Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity.
What a fascinating concept! - and not one that I have ever considered before. Shmuel begins to
believe that Judas Iscariot was in fact the most loyal of Jesus' disciples, believing in him more than he did himself. Did Judas want Jesus to be crucified to prove to the world he was the son of God? Even though Jesus cries that his Father has forsaken him, Judas encourages him to return to Jerusalem. Judas waits for Jesus to saved and when there is no immediate revelation, he hangs himself.
What a thought-provoking, and thoughtful novel. Oz has a lovely turn of phrase, using different words to pose the same old cliches we often hear, such as the chicken/egg scenario:
...question posed by the rabbis of old: how was the first pair of blacksmith's tongs made?
There is so much depth to this novel, and I strongly urge anyone to read it. I'll leave you with one line that has stuck with me:
We [Jews] are all Judas. Even eighty generations later we are all Judas.
Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel.
View all my reviews