In A Tale of Love and Darkness, the 2002 masterpiece by Amos Oz, Israel’s pre-eminent novelist, there is a scene involving cheese. The question, as debated by customers in a grocery shop during the years of Israel’s youth, was simple: “To buy or not to buy Arab cheese?” On the one hand, the Arab cheese was tastier and cheaper. “But if you bought Arab cheese, weren’t you being a traitor to Zionism? Somewhere in some kibbutz or moshav, in the Jezreel Valley or the Hills of Galilee, an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, packing this Hebrew cheese for us – how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? Did we have the heart? On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbours, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid . . . Could we be so heartless as to turn our backs on [the local Arab producer’s] rustic cheese? Could we be so cruel as to punish him? What for?”
So this quasi-Talmidic analysis goes on. Then a wry authorial voice breaks in: “Imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference of religion, nationality, or race! What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? . . . Shame! Shame and disgrace! Either way, shame and disgrace!”
This extract captures perfectly the peculiar power of a novelist’s voice to portray and interpret circumstances of political complexity. Oz cuts through the temporal, focussing instead on the fundamental universals of, as he would put it, “the human condition”; as a result, his rebuke has an almost Old Testament gravity.
Amos Oz is almost as renowned for his journalism – which he has relentlessly used to advocate the pursuit of peace via a two-state solution – as for his fiction. Yet he has always been careful to maintain a partition between the two, even using a different type of pen – one blue, one black – for each mode of writing. “I never mix them up,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “One is to tell the government to go to hell. The other is to tell stories.”
It is undeniable that the moral authority that Oz commands through his fiction lends his journalism an especial power. This dynamic has many precedents. Ernesto Sábato, the Argentinian novelist who died last year at the age of 99, is a case in point; he grew to be regarded as the foremost moral authority in the country on account of his writing. In 1983, towards the end of his career, he was appointed to lead an investigation into the fate of the 30,000 “desaparecidos”, or “people who were caused to disappear”, during the military dictatorship of the Seventies and early Eighties. His report, Nunca Más (Never Again), was a remarkably thoroughgoing, dispassionate reckoning of the human rights abuses that had occurred. At first glance, it may seem strange that a novelist was selected for this job. The circumstances were complex, but there is no doubt that it was Sábato’s moral standing – which he acquired primarily as a novelist – that gave him both the gravitas and impartiality to conduct the affair. Indeed, when he was appointed, there was a real sense that nobody else in the country could do it.
But the fact remains that there are some things a novelist can’t do. Despite decades of campaigning by Amos Oz and his friends, for instance, the two-state solution seems more elusive than ever.
Earlier this month, another distinguished Israeli novelist and peace campaigner, David Grossman – whose son, Uri, was killed in action in 2006 in southern Lebanon – joined forces with the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal to launch a fresh lobby for peace. Supported by a range of respected literary figures from around the world, they presented their appeal at the closing session of the World Forum for Democracy. The creation of a viable Palestinian state, they argued, would require “painful compromises for both parties,” including “the abandonment of settlements or their exchange for land, the renouncement of the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the sharing of Jerusalem.” They stated that there is still a “possible solution” for the Israel-Palestine conflict, but “maybe not for long”. But as moving and commendable as their speeches were, it is unlikely that many of those present believed that they would yield any significant results. Continue reading on the Telegraph website