Reading the International Prize

Reading David Grossman’s novel did not require a locational leap. The venue for standup comedy easily seemed more universal than regional. Even the content of the jokes seemed  highly universal. Vocabulary was largely devoid of localized references, and ethnic considerations were mostly neutralized. Even the military camp that becomes the focus as Grossman shifts his narrative to the interior memories of Dovaleh could have been a summer camp for adolescents anywhere in the world. The reader is aware that the place names of the novel ground the novel in Israel, but the novel remains a novel of the ego-centric mind, a novel that veers strangely toward bildungsroman as it develops.

The Amos Oz novel, Judas, a classic bildungsroman, on the other hand, is highly regional. Oz asks his reader for an intellectual response rather than an emotional response. He builds a novel that is read best out of a consciousness of Isreali history. He asks his reader to struggle with the birth of the nation as the backdrop for his protagonist’s self understanding.

When the student Shmuel Ash drops out of university, he takes a job as companion to the elderly Gershom Wald. Walt is father-in-law to widowed Atalia Abravanel, the daughter of  the late Shealtiel Abravanel who opposed David Ben-Gurion favoring the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs. This is heady stuff for the reader uninitiated to the tensions of mid-twentieth century Israel.

The reader can follow the struggles of a young man to find himself after being rejected by his lover and having lost his purpose as a budding academic even if that reader knows little of the history and culture of Israel. Shmuel seems like the classic contemporary millennial who has difficulty sustaining himself apart from parental patronage. His characterization is engaging, and the carefully layered plot of the novel is compelling in and of itself. Still Shmuel is a young man of ideas, and full understanding of his struggles rides on tapping into the depth of those ideas. Oz has said of the novel that he is surprised that readers have appreciated the novel, realizing that a novel of ideas is out of fashion. Oz underestimates his own skill as storyteller, a raconteur who can pull a reader past his own limitations of facts and understanding.

Perhaps it is the honest self-acceptance of Shmuel that compels the reader. He sees himself realistically without the self-pitying indulgence of Grossman’s middle-aged Dovaleh. He neither blames his parents nor the girl who betrayed him. He knows he is struggling for his own soul., but he is content with the crumbs from the kitchen, the leftovers from Wald’s nightly porridge. He’s the suffering servant who accepts that he must knit together the threads of denial if he is to regain purpose and move on.

The reader empathizes with the young man, relives his own struggle for meaning, but he also finds himself introduced to a foreign culture, alternate ways of defining self. He experiences life in the context of politics, religion, and culture from which he has had little access from reading his own national literature. And that’s one of the values to following the Booker International.


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