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Oz honored in Germany

Sabine Peschel / ad
July 8, 2015

Renowned Israeli author Amos Oz in the winner of Germany's International Literature Prize. His novel "Judas," a socially relevant tale of treachery and mystery, has struck a nerve in Germany.

Amos Oz, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Author Amos Oz and Mirjam Pressler, who translated "Judas" into German, will be presented with their award at a ceremony Wednesday evening (08.07.2015) in Berlin. The International Literature Prize, in its seventh year, is presented by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) and the Elementarteilchen Foundation in Hamburg and honors literature from around the world in German translation.

In an August 2014 interview with DW, Amos Oz, one of Israel's most significant writers, asked: "How secure can Jewish people feel on this planet?" He continued, "I think not about the last 20 or 50 years, but about the last 2,000 years."

His statement almost sounds like a comment on his novel, "Judas," published at the time in Hebrew. Like all of his novels and stories - certainly since "A Tale of Love and Darkness" in 2002 - his latest work also focuses on the fundamental questions of Israel's existence: the founding of the state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the wars it's been through, and conflicts with the Palestinians.

The 76-year-old author masters the art of tackling huge topics with a minimum of means. He has created "Judas" as an intimate play between five characters, three living and two dead.

In the late 1950s, three generations live together in a house on the outskirts of the historic center of Jerusalem. Shmuel Ash sees himself forced to find work. His father's company is ruined; his livelihood has vanished together with his girlfriend. The failed theology student takes on a job talking with and reading to a highly educated disabled man named Gershom Wald.

Newer Jerusalem streets Zion Circle
Zion Circle in Jerusalem, ca. 1946Image: public domain

Ash is compensated with accommodations, plus a bit of pocket money. From then on, he shares a quiet house with Wald and his widowed daughter-in-law, Athaliah. He's forbidden from talking about his work and living situation, but not told why.

"Jesus in the eyes of the Jews" was the topic of Ash's originally planned master thesis, which gave him plenty to talk about with his elderly employer. The complicated relationship between the residents of the house comes out only very gradually.

The mysterious, childless daughter-in-law, who could well be his mother, was the wife of Gershom Wald's son, Micha. He is one of the two dead whose presence can be felt. The other one is Athaliah's famous father, Shealtiel Abrabanel, a fictional opponent of Israel's first Prime Minsiter Ben Gurion.

Amos Oz describes Abrabanel with all his psychological contradictions. While fighting for a peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, which made him an outsider in the eyes of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, he did not have any love left for his daughter. He was branded a traitor - a Judas, the figure which has become a target of the deepest anti-Semitic feelings.

Jerusalem circa 1960
Jerusalem, ca. 1960Image: public domain

A novel that spans millennia

"Judas" is a philosophical novel based on theological literature that focuses on the question of treason. Why should Judas have betrayed Jesus for a mere 30 silver coins'? Wasn't it Judas who worshiped his master more than all the other disciples and only wanted to see proof of Jesus' power and his ability to save himself from the cross?

The answer to that question, which is repeated over and over again in the novel, is not only theological, but of global political significance. The depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of Judas is one of the most impressive parts of the book.

Equally impressive is how Amos Oz manages to evoke the atmosphere of Jerusalem in the winter of 1959/60. In the dense, gray air it is clear that the love story ensuing between the daughter-in-law and the curly-haired student Ash has been doomed right from the outset. Although time itself seems to have come to a halt, the historical turbulences not only of recent decades but of the past 2,000 years are reflected in the conversations, losses and hopes of the three roommates.

Buchcover Amos Oz Judas
The German version of "Judas"Image: Suhrkamp

Amos Oz's novel was selected from a prestigious short list that included: Daša Drndić's ("Sonnenschein" - Sunshine), NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names), Patrick Chamoiseau ("L'empreinte à Crusoé" - Crusoe's footprint), Gilbert Gatore (The Past Ahead), and Krisztina Tóth (Aquarium).