Judas by Amos Oz; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 320 pages, $25
Three grubby people live in a grubby house in a grubby city, but they still might be noticed on the street, if only for their drabness.
Shmuel Ash, 25 or so years old, answers a “Companion Wanted” notice on the student bulletin board at his university. Needing to get home to Haifa after dropping out of his doctoral program in Jerusalem, he moves into the falling-apart house at the end of a rundown street as the paid companion to an old warhorse of Israel’s war for independence. The old man’s widowed daughter-in-law runs the place.
Pudgy Shmuel has a “Neanderthal” beard, enlarged heart and asthma. His shyness doesn’t stop him from the occasional pronouncement: “We are drunk on victory. Drunk on power. Drunk on biblical cliches.” He starts his day by wishing “Good morning, comrades” to the Cuban revolutionary leaders in the poster he has taped to his wall.
Shmuel’s duties as companion include living in the house with old Gershom Wald, who believes the future would be better if all religions and revolutions disappeared from the world. Shmuel also must obey the dictates of Atalia Abravanel, widow of Wald’s son, Micha, killed in the fighting leading to the ultimate declaration of Israeli independence. Atalia, 45, conducts a low-key game of seducing Shmuel, perhaps out of sheer boredom.
Other characters are even less vivid than these three, but Oz needs their minimal presence to keep the plot from collapsing. They include Shmuel’s bankrupted parents; his sister working her way through medical school in Italy; Atalia’s deceased father, opponent of Israeli statehood and regarded as a traitor; her dead husband; Shmuel’s professor, Gustav Yomtov Eisenschloss; and Sarah de Toledo, elderly across-the-street neighbor, who prepares and delivers a daily vegetarian lunch and evening porridge for Shmuel to feed to Wald.
So, the title. Oz braids three main storylines into the plot. One thread is the struggle inside Judaism over Israeli independence as a doomed experiment or noble door to the future. A second is Shmuel’s miserable existence that winter, having abandoned his dissertation, “The Gospel According to Judas” or perhaps “Jewish Views of Jesus.” He reworks his ideas over in his head, giving Oz a way to fit into the narrative an overview of Jewish scholarship over the centuries regarding Jesus. Being a master of literary magic, Oz somehow produces a coherent story, worth reading despite its unrelenting gloom.
Oz embodies the various sides of the Zionist question in the characters of Wald and of Atalia’s father, with acidic examples of the politics of suppressing history, no matter what country is involved. He makes a weak attempt at humanizing Atalia, but aside from her wardrobe and trim figure, “caressing her dress from within,” she remains only partly a character. Perhaps her husband’s death and mutilation have shut down her personality, but the reader is left to accept this diagram or try to guess what Atalia is supposed to be about.
As for Judas, his character does not deserve having the novel named after him. Oz has Shmuel depict Judas as the most enthusiastic of Jesus’ disciples who takes it upon himself to manage the crucifixion. This version of Judas fully expects Jesus to descend from the cross, toss the nails away and declare that everyone must love one another. In the only vivid part of “Judas,” a chapter depicting the suffering on the cross, Judas realizes only too late that he has read the situation completely wrong.
Oz uses repetition to drive home the monotony, say, of Shmuel’s miserable winter. Day after day, Shmuel sprinkles baby talcum powder on his forehead, beard, cheeks and hair. Time after time, Oz describes the routine. Nowhere does he explain it. And the only cooked food seems to be the porridge and vegetarian lunch from Sarah de Toledo – Shmuel’s daily restaurant lunch of hot goulash soup and fruit compote, and a single omelet Atalia manages to assemble.
Shmuel eventually gets back to Haifa, after waiting ten minutes in the wrong line, but does not quite reach home. We leave him standing in the empty roadway, wondering.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.