OOn Friday afternoon, a text from Israel came to let me know about Amos Oz's death, hailed for decades as the country's greatest novelist. "The last, best voice of an Israel that is all gone," reads it.
Oz himself would undoubtedly have found a way to wave aside such talk, and rejected it as melodramatic. But there is truth in it. For he was actually the execution of a particular Israel, one that dominated in the early years of the state's life, but which has constantly returned to the margins.
To his internal critics, he was the face of the predominantly Ashkenazi, the European Jewish elite who built the country, a bleeding heart-liberal, who continuously hides the nation for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, a founder of the Peace Now Movement that never stopped requiring his other Israelis behave more wisely and fairly. More than once, he was condemned as a traitor, an insult he once told me, he considered nothing less than an honorary mark, and put him in the same company as Jeremiah, Abraham Lincoln and Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
Outside the country, however, he could swim the diaspora Jewish audience; They saw him as a pin-up for Israel of their dreams. Brilliant handsome, his face war – cut by service in Israel's 1967 and 1973 wars, he could have been a model of the "new Jew" the first Zionists wanted to forge in the Mediterranean sun. They wanted the new Israeli to be a soldier, farmer and poet. Oz was all three, a member of Kibbutz Hulda, where he took his turn to pick fruit and washes, reversing the stories from his novels to collective coupons.
That way it was the man's first invented character. He was not born an Oz, but a Klausner, does not grow on a kibbutz, but in Jerusalem. His father was a scholar and librarian; The novelist of the future was raised in what he called "a house full of footnotes". He fled to kibbutz at age 15 and renamed oz-Hebrew for strength.
The trigger for that escape and recovery may well have been the suicide of his mother, Fania, when Amos was only 12. In fact, that incident helped Oz's fiction. When we met in 2001, he told me that it was the mystery he had spent his life, and his books, "trying to decode". He confronted the most explicit in what may well be his finest work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, a Romanist memoir thought to be the best-selling literary work in Israeli history.
Through Oz's fiction, the same motives resurrect: clenched love triangles, oedipal longings, unspoken desires, often linked to a protagonist who is paralyzed by inaction and a woman out of reach. A mystery may dwell – perhaps a buried scandal related to the country's past past. They are quiet but intensely evocative stories, full of both the intimacy of relationships and the place, especially the youth of Jerusalem's writers.
Yet Oz's novels were obliged to be read as manifestations, each supposed to be a blurred address to the state of the nation. It was not unusual for Shimon Peres to look at an Oz novel; Peres was just one of several Israeli prime ministers known to call the author what he called "a late night tête-à-tête". Part of that was what Oz described as "the Jewish-Slavic tradition," which insisted a novelist also play the role of prophet, telling the tribe where they went wrong. Oz stumbled upon it a little, and once complained to me: "No one expected Virginia Woolf to write about the Munich agreement, but everyone assumes that my novels are parables about the new intifada."
But part of it was his own fault, because Oz had a twin career as an essayist and polemic. He was one of a group of young writers to edit an anthology immediately after the sixth day war of 1967 – they called it the seventh day – claiming that Israel would immediately give up the land it had won in the West Bank and Gaza, and seek the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel. It was an outlandish radical attitude at the time, but within three decades it would be the international consensus. Oz never left it.
His great gift was to express complex moral ideas through compelling metaphor, even in his English language. He would argue that after the Holocaust, the Jews were a drowning man: therefore, they had the right to grab a piece of driftwood, even though forcing another Palestinian to share it. What they did not have was the right to grab the whole tree and force the other man to sea – something that Israel did in 1967. He wanted to say that the Jews and Palestinians understood that a two-state solution was needed, the problem lay with their leaders: " The patient is ready for the operation, "he wrote. "But surgeons are cowards."
Some found it difficult to categorize. In Israel, he was a trenchant critic and dissenter. Outside, he was a strong defender of his country with little patience for those who could not understand the Jewish need for their own home. If he had an ideology, there was hostility with fanaticism and a belief in compromise. He believed that compromise was too often seen "as weakness, so pitiful surrender". While writing, "in the lives of families, neighbors and nations, one chooses to compromise is actually choosing life". The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity, he claimed. "The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death."
Oz was secured with prizes and adoring the audience in Europe in particular – his essay How to cure a fanatic is taught in Swedish schools – and he was often mentioned as a possible nobel competitor. In Israel, he continued to enjoy a large and attentive reader. But his views, which once reflected half of the population, became increasingly marginal in their own country. The peace election circle went down; Fewer Israelis rallied to their enlightened compromise message.
But he never lost his belief that the story of Israel and Palestine would end with disintegration. Like so many in front of him in that part of the world, he insisted that the promised land lay ahead – even though he would not live to see it.