Israeli writer Amos Oz and Cretan memoirist George Psychoundakis are two of the highlights of Assistant Blog Editor Jonathan Egid’s 2018 reading list. Addressing topics ranging from Israeli politics and the death of Jesus (Oz) to Renaissance poetry and home-brewed alcohol (Psychoundakis), the two writers nevertheless share a sense of humour and a talent for producing powerful and thought-provoking texts.
Having spent most of the first half of the year reading texts about, rather than in translation, as part of my research for a thesis on the philosophy of cultural and conceptual difference, I relished the opportunity to read texts with somewhat more invigorating prose than typically displayed in analytic philosophy journals, and my summer reading list was full of translated fiction.
High on this list was the Israeli writer Amos Oz’s first new novel in over a decade, Judas. An old-fashioned novel of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann, Judas begins with an end; the protagonist Shmuel Ash is left suddenly by his girlfriend, and then learns of his father’s bankruptcy, which forces him to abandon his promising studies. He takes up work caring for an elderly cripple in an ancient house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the narrative follows Shmuel as he is drawn into the troubled history of this crumbling house and its mysterious and enticing inhabitants.
The narrative is interspersed with Shmuel’s reflections on his now-abandoned thesis, giving the story—which takes place almost entirely in the old house and the neighbouring streets, cafes, and alleyways—a dazzling historical and intellectual scope, as Oz spans continents and centuries from medieval Al-Andalus to Galician shtetls and kibbutzim on the Sharon plain, tracing the fraught history of Jesus and the Jews. The focus of these reflections is neither Jesus nor the Jews, but on the eponymous Judas, or rather on the figure of Judas, the figure of a most reviled and hated traitor.
Oz has long insisted on the nobility of the traitor, of the person who has the courage to change and, in doing so, incurring the wrath of those who refuse to change. Shmuel, however, is obsessed with countering centuries of anti-Semitic propaganda by insisting that Judas, far from being the malicious and greedy betrayer of Christ, was in fact the disciple truest and purest in his faith, as Oz mischievously suggests, “perhaps the only Christian.” It was Judas, according to Shmuel, who led the simple Galilean wonderworker to the cross in the belief that he would prove his divinity, believing with all of his devotion that Jesus would step down from the cross, that he wouldn’t and couldn’t die because he was God. It is only as Jesus cries out for his mother (not his father, in a revealing Ozian twist) on the cross that Judas has the distraught realisation that his saviour is merely flesh and bone, and that he has led him to his death. The chapter in which Oz tells the story of the crucifixion, entirely from the perspective of Judas, is a visceral and harrowing portrayal of the terrible event, as moving as any Mantenga or Velázquez crucifixion scene, even with the pathos of the story residing in the guilt of Judas rather than the suffering of Christ.
There is much here which will be familiar to readers of Oz’s previous works: an awkward, poor, and somewhat neurotic intellectual, dim libraries full of cramped bookshelves, a sensual and mysterious woman, and the city of Jerusalem as a character in its own right. The novel is translated into wonderfully lucid English from the Hebrew by long-time collaborator Nicholas de Lange, allowing Oz’s tender yet authoritative voice to speak directly to the audience, a quality which is essential for preventing a hefty novel of ideas from collapsing under the pressure of its own sprawling intellectual weight. Indeed, that a book so densely populated with these headiest of ideas retains its human charm—and an aching poignancy in the closing chapters—is a testament to the consummate skill and artistry of the septuagenarian master from Jerusalem, and of de Lange’s excellent rendering.
Later on in the year, I read Oz’s most recent political work Dear Zealots, a short but powerful book on the politics of his troubled homeland. In three short chapters, he ranges prodigiously across familiar Ozian topics: Hebrew literature, Israeli politics, fanaticism, jokes, and the radical humanism of the prophets, love, coffee, and the two-state solution. This new book serves as a summation of the political, cultural and artistic views he has been debating and fighting for over the last forty years, and serves as an ideal point from which to reappraise them, a point at which they are more important to hear, discuss, and debate than any time in the recent past. These ideas are rendered with remarkable lucidity by Jessica Cohen, who shared the year before last year’s Man Booker prize for foreign fiction with another of Israel’s great political authors, David Grossman.
An unexpected treat was reading the The Cretan Runner, a memoir of the Nazi occupation of Crete by the author, autodidact translator, and resistance fighter George Psychoundakis. The book itself is a thrilling account of an oft-neglected sphere of conflict in WWII, giving a first-hand account of the apocalyptic “Operation Mercury,” in which 15,000 German paratroopers landed on the island, and the resistance activities and reprisals of the following years. Translated in a typically elegant and melodious style by Psychoundakis’s friend and former partner in the resistance, the famed travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the narrative tells of a young provincial shepherd thrown into a terrifying mechanised war of parachutes, submarines and plastic explosives.
The narrative contains its fair share of daring expeditions and suicidally brave feats, including the abduction of a German general, the blowing up of a German base by a dynamite-laden donkey, and Psychoundakis’s nightly treks of seventy or eighty miles. The soul of the book, however, lies in Psychoundakis’s descriptions of the camaraderie between the local Cretan resistance of farmers and shepherds, and their old Etonian counterparts on the British side, with many tales of Psychoundakis entertaining the resistance by recounting from memory the Erotokritos, a masterpiece of Cretan Renaissance poetry, during cold winter nights spent in damp, remote caves warmed only by gallons of home-distilled raki. He writes with an utterly irrepressible, mischievous energy that jumps out at the reader from every page, whether describing drinking parties or the liberation of his homeland. His is the voice of an entirely innocent originality, genial and poetic with a natural sense of the tragic, able to convey at once the horror of war and the excitement of danger without ever losing his curiosity or wry sense of humour.
After the war, Psychoundakis was interned in a military prison for over sixteen months, where he composed the manuscript that would become The Cretan Runner, but it was only after having returned home to Crete that he began his staggeringly ambitious project of translating over 1000 pages of Homer, both the Iliad and the Odyssey, from Ancient Greek into the modern Cretan dialect. Working at this time as a charcoal burner, and living in such grinding poverty that he could afford neither a pen nor paper, Psychoundakis was gifted a tall stack of index cards by an old friend from the resistance, and wrote furiously at the end of every day. He had virtually no formal education, but was said to have worked with an almost superhuman energy and a prodigious memory, and completed the project in a just few years. His Herculean effort was eventually recognised by the Academy of Athens, but even after The Cretan Runner made his renown truly international, he is best remembered on his home island as a freedom fighter, a poet, and a patriot.
Jonathan Egid recently completed his philosophical studies at Oxford University and is now based in London, where he writes, teaches, and researches.
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