Curiosity is a moral virtue … Babel’s Amos Oz

To Amos Oz—the first speaker of the 2011/12 season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel—he is just a postman scrawling notes onto the letters of the dead. The Israeli novelist has written many books, but it is his personal history in A Tale of Love and Darkness that has won over hearts and minds the world over. Translated into 28 languages, his depiction of his family and the whole of Israel couldn’t have been written until sixty years passed and he was finally able to ‘speak’ to his parents long since gone.

After his mother committed suicide due to a long bout with depression, Amos changed his last name and abandoned his father to become all that he was not before eventually ending up everything the man wished he would. At age 15 he became a Labor Zionist and joined kibbutz Hulda where he started his own family shielded from the past he refused to remember. Writing this ‘tale’—it is not a memoir as the American jackets say, but the ancient literary form containing memory, fantasy, nightmare, and hope—was a way to acknowledge the past, introduce his wife and kids to his parents posthumously, and all at once change his anger towards them for leaving into love. He needed those thirty years to pass and make him old enough to be their parents at the time of their deaths. Until then he was just another rebellious young man treading his own way.

With great humor and a modest acknowledgement of his voice in the world, Oz treated Buffalo to a rousing talk that predominantly covered the work at hand but also spanned his life with anecdotes and digressions. He relayed his astonishment at how widespread the appeal for Love and Darkness was, discovering how “the more provincial a story, the more universal it may become”. Not saying they all will, he can’t help but see how common such tales are in their spirit of being “tragic comedies of immigrants”. Every country has them and most everyone comes from ancestors removed from their homes. And for Oz, his life will always be one of a displaced European.

The stories told about his parents—Dad speaking eleven languages and Mom five or six—his well-spoken aunt from whom he culled many stories, and his grandmother’s bourgeois lifestyle making her arrival to the deserts of Jerusalem quite the event all speak to his ability to erase the line between comedy and tragedy. Every moment contains both and his work mixes them in narrative prose—not fiction since fiction is a lie. He does not write lies. Instead he revels in the fact his stories consist of “tragic conflicts between right and right” because, as he says, most conflicts do. Touching upon the religious battle between Palestinians and Jews in his homeland, Oz is never afraid to speak his political opinions. But while he believes in a two-state solution—whether he likes it is another question—he would never push that ideology onto others. He tells the American Diaspora to cultivate their own ideas and believe in what they feel is right.

Oz’s words were spoken with a flourish and his reading from Love and Darkness was superb with humorous oration. He praised his translators as artists—translation his choice for mankind’s greatest invention—and explained how he tells each to “be unfaithful in order to be loyal”; talked about rebellions going full circle—his own included; and how he invites his deceased relatives over for coffee and conversation before kicking them out. Intelligent discourse such as calling the Arabs and Israelis “two children of a violent parent” resonated with his idea that where we would assume they’d join forces to fight their suppressor, both sides always see the other as an extension of the oppression.

Jerusalem to him consists of victims of Europe thrown out. Tossed away, his grandfather tried to gain citizenship anywhere he could to avoid Israel. ‘Luckily’ he was even refused by Germany less than ten years before Hitler would have slaughtered them and Jerusalem became home. Oz asks us to ignore CNN’s view of this home and understand that while the media depicts 80% of the population as religious and militant, they are actually “loud, materialistic, and warm-hearted”. He joked, “Israelis belong in a Fellini movie.” I believe him and look forward to reading the work of a man with such a witty and cerebral outlook on the world.

Babel 2011/2012 Season:
Naomi Shihab Nye (United States) – December 2, 2011 – Transfer
Zadie Smith (England) – March 21, 2012 – White Teeth
Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland) – April 12, 2012 – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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