Judas by Amos Oz

“Blessed are the dreamers, and cursed be the man who opens their eyes. True, the dreamers cannot save us, neither they nor their disciples, but without dreamers the curse that lies upon us would be seven times heavier. Thanks to the dreamers, maybe we who are awake are a little less ossified and desperate than we would be without them.”

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Edition: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 320 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Judas, the latest novel by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, is set in 1969, and follows Shmuel Ash, a young, sensitive, idealist, infatuated with socialist ideas, who’s working on his post-graduate thesis on the topic “Jewish views of Jesus”. Due to certain circumstances, he has to abandon his studies and he applies for the job of a companion in exchange for room and board to an elderly, highly intellectual but cynical man, called Gersham Wald, who’s a recluse and is basically in need of a good discussion partner.

He shares the house with Atalia, a beautiful, middle-aged woman, who has become resentful toward the world and she has good reasons for that. She is the daughter of a deceased Zionist leader, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler, because we find that out very early in the novel that her father was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel and thus considered by many to be a traitor.

The novel spans only one winter and focuses on their long, thought-provoking philosophical discussions. Gersham Wald and Shmuel Ash represent two opposing, but very convincing worldviews, and I like how the book is fair at presenting both of their positions on various topics. By the end of the book, these three people end up changing each other and forming an unlikely family.

The novel invites the reader to reconsider the image of the traitor, tracing it back to the biblical story of Judas Iscariot, whose name has become synonymous with betrayal and, to certain people, even the synonym for Jewish people that has lead to horrifying consequences throughout history. So in this compact novel, Oz offers an alternative, and I must say, very convincing and nuanced version of the story of Judas, and it was very interesting to consider how a small change in the interpretation can shed a completely different light on a well-known story.

The overarching themes of the novel are treason and loyalty, and these themes are explored from different perspectives – from the political, historical, and religious to the very personal, and I think the success of this novel lies in it’s multi-layered approach to the idea of betrayal. He puts forward the idea that many people throughout history, who were ahead of their time, were accused of being traitors by their contemporaries, and asks the question at which point and by whose verdict does an idealist, who seeks to reform the world, become a traitor?

What I also loved about this novel is that, although I think it’s clear that, first and foremost, this is a novel of ideas, it’s also a classic coming-of-age story. Over the course of the novel, Shmuel Ash has to ask himself very hard questions and reconsider some of his views of the world. And in addition to that, the novel is also a story of love, remorse and loneliness, and a vivid portrait of divided Jerusalem of the time.

The novel felt like a quiet provocation, but I felt that its core message is an appeal for compassion and genuine discussion, even if it means entertaining a completely opposite point of view. I really loved this book, and I’m curious to read more by Oz.

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

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Edition: Pushkin Press, 2017, 188 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, follows Sonja, a forty-something year old woman living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of crime novels, and the novel basically focuses on her struggle to get her driver’s license. We get to hear her thoughts about her everyday frustrations and the current state of her life, and how she’s trying to change the course of it. She feels stuck so through the small, symbolic act of learning to drive, she seems to be making her first steps toward becoming more in control of her life. She also suffers from a form of positional vertigo that she’s trying to hide.

The novel explores the life of a woman, who lives on her own and isn’t defined by her relationships with other people. In some ways, it is also an existential novel. Sonja is superstitious and fatalistic and she believes that her misfortune is predetermined by an encounter with a fortuneteller. She spends a lot of time worrying about her future and struggling to find a way out of her situation.

Sonja spends a lot of time looking back at events from her past, especially returning to her childhood growing up in a rural area where she felt a very spiritual connection to nature that she can’t seem to find in the big city, and one of the major themes of the novel is urban isolation. Sonja doesn’t enjoy living in Copenhagen and she wants to reconnect with her sister Kate, who stayed and made a life for herself close to her hometown. The novel discusses how young people from rural areas, who have received a good education, are encouraged to leave their hometown to pursue a career in a big city. Urban life is seen as a way to fulfilment, but for some people, it only leads to loneliness and isolation. It’s an interesting idea and can imagine that many people feel this way, but as a city girl, born and raised, I couldn’t really relate to that on an emotional level. And overall, while the author explored some interesting themes, the novel didn’t really work for me.

I felt very emotionally disconnected from the characters and some of Sonja’s actions felt very juvenile. She’s the kind of person that wants other people to reach out to her but is kinda insensitive and judgmental about the weird quirks and beliefs of others. And I don’t like saying this, but for me, this novel was just kinda boring and my mind would constantly drift away to something else while I was reading it. I don’t think it’s a bad book, the tone is lighthearted and sometimes witty, but I felt like there wasn’t much there on the surface. The style of the prose is minimalistic and I felt like the author was inviting me to try to read between the lines and find some hidden meaning, and sometimes that works, but in this case, I didn’t care enough to search for it. I know that the author is better known for her short stories and, even though it’s not a long novel, I think this story might have worked better in short story form. I don’t want to discourage you from picking it up, it’s a quick read that explores some interesting topics, but it just wasn’t my kind of story.

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Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.

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Edition: Oneworld, 2017, 151 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is an short, surreal and suspenseful Argentinian novel about a woman named Amanda, who lies dying in a hospital, and is recounting to a boy named David, who’s not her son, the events of the last couple of days of her life.

We find out that Amanda came on vacation to the country with her young daughter Nina and from there the events of the novel are unravelling at a very fast, feverish pace, so I think the best way to experience it, is to go through it in one sitting.

This is a very intense and atmospheric novel that pushes you along although you’re not quite sure what is happening. It requires you to try to piece together the story by yourself, and you’ll still probably walk away with many questions. At the same time, as strange and disorienting as it is, it feels like the author remains in control of the narrative and doesn’t let it become annoyingly confusing. The tension is enhanced when you notice that David seems to be leading her narrative; he constantly instructs Amanda on what is important and what she should focus on; making sure that she doesn’t stray from the intended course of the story.

The story is terrifying because of the unknown, and it gently creeps into your imagination as you try to fit all the pieces together and come up with reasonable explanations. The novel reads like an unconventional horror story about motherhood. It seems that, at its core, it looks at the link between mother and child, that is described almost as a physical thing, a rope that is tied to Amanda’s stomach from the outside and that she feels is pulling at her. This idea of the rope is linked to what Amanda has named the rescue distance, which is the variable distance separating her from her daughter in case something bad may happen. She is constantly anxious and alert over the safety of her child that is very common among parents, young parents in particular. The novel explores that fear of being responsible for someone so fragile, who requires your protection, and how easy something could happen without you expecting it. The author is great at creating this sense of danger, so much so that even you as the reader start to worry about Nina and become suspicious about all the other characters.

Even though I’m still not sure if I completely understood the underlying message of this novel, I was engrossed in the story and I look forward to seeing what the author writes next.

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War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

“Time has abandoned us; we have slipped into a dim, unreal fold in its fabric, with no beginning or end in sight. Season follows season, the clouds drift overhead, fabulous white beasts and capricious gods in the noonday light; we are old before our time, we behave like housebound, fatalistic children, numbed and indifferent to life and death. ”

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Edition: Text Publishing, 2016, 336 pages.

War and Turpentine is a Belgian novel written by Stefan Hertmans and translated from the Dutch by David McKay that blurs the lines between fact and fiction and recounts the life of the author’s grandfather Urbain Martien, who, shortly before his death, gave his grandson a set of journals containing the memories of his life, and the author used these recollections and intertwined them with his own memories and ruminations to create this novel.

Hertmans’ grandfather Urbain was born at the end of the 19th century when Flanders was very poor, a time when both the socialist movement and Christian organizations were trying, in their own way, to help the workers, who were living in very difficult conditions, and Europe was unaware that it was heading toward a catastrophe that would determine the course of his grandfather’s life forever.

The first section of the book is devoted to Urbain’s childhood, growing up in poverty, when in order to help support his family, he had to start working in an iron foundry from a very early age. His father was a struggling church painter and from him, Urbain inherited his great love for painting that provided him comfort throughout his life.

The middle and most important section focuses on his grandfather’s experiences during his service in the trenches of the First World War, and the horrific trauma that he suffered, which essentially overshadowed his whole life. This part of the novel also marks a shift in the narrative. It feels like the author steps back from his lyrical prose that occasionally steers into the direction of sentimentality, in favour of his grandfather’s stark yet elegant first-person narrative. Even though Urbain started writing his memoirs 50 years after the war, his testimony of the terror, cold, degradation, brutality and death that he experienced during the war is strikingly detailed and intense. It’s harrowing to read.

The third section returns to the author’s own memories and discoveries that he has made about his grandfather’s past by following in his grandfather’s footsteps and visiting some of the sites from Urbain’s memories to reflect on the importance of these places in his grandfather’s life and to explore how the passage of time has changed them.

The title – War and Turpentine – two things that don’t seem to go together is actually a very accurate representation of the contradictions that defined Urbain’s life. His dream of becoming a painter was derailed by the lasting horror of the Great War. This contradiction between horror and beauty continued to be a recurring theme in the novel. Overall, I thought that through the recollections of his grandfather, an ordinary man of who lived in that period, the author has created a beautiful and moving portrait of a generation, whose lives were shaped, broken and haunted by the First World War.

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Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2017, 160 pages.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak, is a novel written as a series of interconnected vignettes set in a small rural village in Poland in the last decade of the communist era. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the 1980s and narrated by Wiola, a young girl who goes through the changes from childhood to adolescence during a time of turbulent events and significant changes in Poland, although these historical events, such as the Papal visit of John Paul II in 1987, are only mentioned by passing references, focusing instead on Wiola’s personal experiences and life in the rural village of Hektary that largely remains unaffected by the changes happening in the country.

For those of you who don’t really know that much about the historical events in Poland at the time, I would suggest that you read the Translator’s note at the end of the book before diving into the novel because it provides some historical background.

Wiola is a very curious and imaginative girl, and the book gives us an opportunity to observe the adult world from her perspective. Sometimes she does not notice certain nuances un completely understand what is going on allows us to notice the nuances of certain situations and interpret them by ourselves from an adult’s perspective.

Although the book seems like is a series of charming, lyrically written, and even a bit nostalgic episodes from Wiola’s life in a rural village, I liked how the author manages to unexpectedly evoke a sense of underlying danger or to confront the reader with something unsettling. This is also a good example, where the author includes local folklore that actually serves a purpose, not just to make a story more quirky, by showing how the lives of the villagers are influenced by a strange mix of Catholic beliefs and superstitions.

Overall, I enjoyed it, although I felt like the writing got better as the book went on, and, for me, one the most moving scenes of the book was the moment when Wiola imagines an incident from her father’s life, from which there is this great quote:

“What a strange world this is” he said to me suddenly when the bus turned into Pulaski Street. “Before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit.”

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