2020 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Well, another year of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge has come to a close. Each year I try to read as many books as possible set in, or about different European countries, or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, I find myself moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year I read and reviewed 23 books, and for my efforts earned the coveted Jet Setter Award. I wasn’t as productive in 2020 but still managed to read and review 20 books for the challenge. Just like in past years, there’s a variety of countries represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, to smaller ones like Belgium, Switzerland and even the micro-state of Vatican City. This year for this first time I’ll be including books representing Slovakia and Norway

  1. An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins (United Kingdom)
  2. The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. by Carole DeSanti (France)
  3. The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan (Germany)
  4. Warburg in Rome by James Carroll (Italy) 
  5. The Last by Hanna Jameson (Switzerland) 
  6. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen (Russia)
  7. Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Ukraine) 
  8. 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrin (Sweden)
  9. Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson (Austria)
  10. Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary by Tivadar Soros (Hungary)
  11. Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin (Slovakia)
  12. The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger (Bosnia) 
  13. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Spain) 
  14. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne (Greece)
  15. An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl (The Netherlands) 
  16. From Bruges with Love by Peiter Aspe (Belgium)
  17. Guilty Wives by James Patterson and David Ellis (Monaco)
  18. Prague Spring by Simon Mawer (Czech Republic)
  19. The Vatican Cop by Shawn Raymond Poalillo (Vatican City)
  20. The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb by Neal Bascomb (Norway)

It was about a 50-50 mix of fiction and nonfiction for this years’ challenge, with fiction tallying slightly more with 11 books. Five books were translated from other languages, including one, Masquerade from Esperanto. Both The Last Battle and The Future is History made my 2020 Favorite Nonfiction list while The Last, Beautiful Animals and The Angel’s Game made the Favorite Fiction list. I declared The Angel’s Game my favorite novel of 2020. 

As you can guess, I’m a huge fan of this challenge. I encourage all you book bloggers to sign up and read your way across Europe. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

2020 In Review: My Favorite Fiction

Now that I’ve posted my favorite nonfiction of 2020 it’s time to announce this year’s favorite fiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when these books were published. All that matters is they’re excellent.

When I first sat down to write this post, I feared I hadn’t read enough fiction in 2020 to justify such a list. Lo and behold I soon realized I’d read a number of terrific novels over the course of the year.

  1. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  2. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
  3. Judas by Amos Oz
  4. Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley
  5. Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne
  6. The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman
  7. Polar Star by Marin Cruz Smith
  8.  The Last by Hanna Jameson
  9. The Accomplice by Joseph Kanon
  10. The Fourth Figure by Pieter Aspe

As for declaring an overall winner, that honor goes to The Angel’s Game by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

Typical of my reading tastes, eight of theses novels are set outside the USA. Lastly, as many as six of these novels could be classified at crime drama and/or mystery. In last year’s post I made a similar observation, leading me to wonder if I’ve developed a taste for these genres. Seeing this trend continue in 2020 it looks like I have.

About Time I Read It: The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado

Back in 2011 I shared my thoughts on Lucette Lagnado’s 2007 family memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. I loved how she took me inside the long-vanished world of Old Cairo, a diverse and enchanting universe where a tapestry of cultures and religions existed side by side creating a place that was both European and Middle Eastern. For a book that didn’t make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit must have made a lasting impression on me. I say that because when I recently stumbled across a series of podcasts produced by Tablet magazine and saw one featuring an interview with Lagnado I immediately listed to it. I was delighted to learn she’d written a follow-up book called The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn which focused on the life of her mother. A few weeks later I borrowed an ebook of The Arrogant Years through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I’m pleased to say I found The Arrogant Years hard to put down, burning through it in a mere few days.

The Arrogant Years is the memoir of a family, as well as two very different worlds. The first of these long vanished worlds is that of old Cairo. Before General Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in 1954 Egypt was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians easily coexisted. (For another great look at this forgotten time I can’t recommend enough Andre Aciman’s 1994 memoir Out of Egypt.) In a society that saw itself as more Levantine than Arab, conversant in French and culturally and intellectually akin to Europe Lagnado wistfully writes “it was possible to be Jewish and a pasha … Jewish and an aristocrat, Jewish and a friend to ministers and kings.” Living in such a cosmopolitan capital, it’s little wonder her mother, a young woman as beautiful as she was intelligent, would catch the eye of the Pasha’s wife. Knowing a gifted bibliophile when she saw one, she hired the gifted teen to oversee her husband’s massive library. (Perhaps the perfect role for someone who’d read the collected works of Proust in the original French by the age of 15.) Later, she’d catch another’s eye, that of a dashing Jewish boulevardier, who, despite being over two decades her senior proposed marriage after a whirlwind courtship.

The second of these vanished worlds is mid-century America, specifically the provincial and segregated Jewish communities of New York City. Many synagogues were ethnically segregated, with North African and Middle Eastern Jews (many recent arrivals like Lagnado’s family) confined to one synagogue while those from Eastern Europe electing to worship in those of their own. Some synagogues, like the one favored by the Lagnados took a more traditional approach to worship by strictly segregating men and women, much to the displeasure of the young Lucette. Inspired by Emma Peel from the sixties British adventure TV series The Avengers she believed it was her heroic duty to overcome this injustice by slowly inching her chair week after week into the mens’ section. Keeping in mind the old-world sensitivities prevalent in her congregation one can only assume her modest fight for gender equality didn’t go exactly as she’d hoped.

While the Lagnados might have lived a charmed life in pre-Nasserite Egypt, in America things weren’t so easy. Her father never regained his stature as a wildly successful man about town. Her mother, forced to give up her dream job as the Pasha’s librarian, ultimately found a somewhat similar but perhaps not as glamorous job working for the Brooklyn Public Library. Lastly, if adjusting to life in America wasn’t tough enough, while in high school Lucette had win a life or death battle with cancer.

The Arrogant Years reminds me of other great memoirs I’ve read over the last several years like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Memoirs like these might not get as much hype as say Tara Westover’s Educated but because they’re so well written and tell such amazing and unique stories need to be appreciated more. Consider The Arrogant Years more than a worthy follow-up to The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit.

About Time I Read It: The Future Is History by Masha Gessen

After reading tons of great things about Masha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I decided to buy a Kindle edition last March after Amazon, much to my joy drastically dropped the price. Months later and needing something about Russia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I began reading it. Like many outstanding books The Future is History blew me away from the beginning. Not only will it make my 2020 list of favorite nonfiction it’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

We all know Russia has reverted back its totalitarian self of old. The question is how did this happen. According to Gessen, in her National Book Award winning work of biography, history and political analysis the Fall of Communism, as earth-shaking as it was, didn’t transform Russia into a functioning democratic society. After a decade of political and economic disfunction under Boris Yeltsin, as corrupt oligarchs and murderous mobsters ran roughshod over the nation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer assumed the reigns of power. After imprisoning, forcibly coopting or assassinating his rivals, seizing their assets and media outlets Putin and his old intelligence service colleagues consolidated their hold on Russia. To some, perhaps even many Russians at first things looked promising. The troublesome oligarchs were neutralized, told to either play ball with Putin or else. The sinking economy was righted. Nationalists rejoiced as Russia adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

This was all made easier, Gessen asserts because Russia, at its core is an authoritarian society. Thanks to 80 years of Soviet rule (building on hundreds of years of Tsarist supremacy) Russians have been conditioned into believing only a dictatorial regime, like that of the Soviets could deliver them material comfort, stability and national pride. Flawed elections, harmful deregulations and weak democratic institutions became synonymous with rampant crime, widespread corruption and a Third Word-like chasm between rich and poor and. Only a return to Russia’s authoritarian past could save the country.

Gessen weaves together the oral histories of four different Russians to show how this  happened, beginning  with the hopefulness of perestroika to the chaos of the Yeltsin years to today’s Putin era. Despite their respective promising beginnings by the end all four Russians are trampled by the heavy-handed Russian state. One, Lyosha finds himself the victim of state-sponsored homophobic bullying after Putin and his allies enact anti-LGBTQ policies. (Supposedly drafted to protect Russia’s children from predatory gays and lesbians, the new laws were designed to please social conservatives and others alarmed at Russia’s plummeting birthrate.) With the deck seemingly stacked forever Putin’s favor, Russia’s future looks bleak.

The Future Is History is an outstanding book, and a must read for anyone wanting to understand Putin’s Russia. Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry it will definitely make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

If 2020 wasn’t bad enough, last month we lost the internationally acclaimed Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Back in 2014, after reading all kinds of great things about Ruiz Zafón I took a chance on his 2012 novel Prisoner of Heaven and was subsequently blown away. Saddened by the news of his untimely passing, I decided to read another book from his best-selling series Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Luckily for me, I was able to use my public library’s Overdrive portal to secure a Kindle version of his 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. After only a few pages I fell in love with The Angel’s Game and it’s almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

Our story begins when David Martín, a young underling at a second-tier Barcelona newspaper is asked at the last minute by his editor to write a feuilleton for the paper. Nervous and eager to prove himself he quickly goes to work. Once completed, much to his surprise and that of his editor Martín’s inaugural piece is a hit. Many feuilletons later, he’s approached by a pair of sleaze ball publishers who commission him to write a series of low-brow penny dreadfuls. While thankful for the opportunity to write professionally, after a while Martín grows weary of spending every waking moment at his typewriter banging out lurid tales of murder, betrayal and illicit liaisons. He yearns to be a real writer, like his idols Charles Dickens and other 19th century greats. Tired, disillusioned and locked-in to an exclusive contract Martín fears his dreams of literary greatness will forever remain unfulfilled.

Then a mysterious stranger enters his life. Wealthy, sophisticated and charming as only the devil could be, Andreas Corelli begins courting Martín with offers of employment. To the princely Parisian money is no object, and troublesome barriers standing in the way of Martín writing for Corelli are vanquished with mephistophelian aplomb. Answering Corelli’s siren call, Martín agrees to write him a book but not just any book. Corelli wants him to create a holy text he’ll use to launch a new religion.

The Angel’s Game has been called everything from a gothic tale to a physiological thriller. Containing elements of horror, romance and crime noir the novel is near unclassifiable in terms of genre. With long philosophical and religious dialogs between characters akin to those of Russian masters like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, together with generous allusions to Great Expectations, The Angel’s Game is like a piece of 19th century literature successfully reimagined for modern readers.

Not only is The Angel’s Game almost certain to make my year-end list of Favorite Fiction it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Please consider this wonderful work of fiction by the late Carlos Ruiz Zafón highly recommended.

The World: A Brief Introduction by Richard Haass

I’d been wanting to read Richard Haass’ 2017 book A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order but after seeing reviews of his newest book The World: A Brief Introduction in newspapers of record like  The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and hearing him interviewed on NPR and Ian Bremmer’s GZERO World podcast I figured I’d skip The World in Disarray and go straight to The World. Figuring a book by the longtime President of the Council on Foreign Relations and key player in both Bush administrations would make for insightful reading I borrowed a Kindle edition through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Touted as a “primer” on our increasingly complicated and interconnected world Haass’ book reads with ease.

Haass starts off by asserting America no longer constructively engages with the rest of the world. As a nation we’ve ceased taking an active role in global affairs and on those few occasions we’ve taken the initiative we’ve made things worse by making horrible decisions. Unfortunately, this double whammy of ineptitude is playing out in a world that grows more unstable and unpredictable by the day. The reason, Haass claims, is because most Americans are ignorant of the wider world. In our push to promote the STEM curriculum young Americans are graduating for colleges and universities with less exposure to global history, comparative politics and international relations. Older Americans, even if they’d taken such classes in college haven’t kept up with the monumental changes that have shaped and continue to shape our world since the Fall of Communism.  What Americans need is an accessible refresher course promoting “global literacy” which hopefully will allow us to function at some basic level in international affairs.

The World begins with a breezy, yet surprisingly comprehensive history of the world beginning with the 30 Years War, arguably considered the birth of the modern age. Once Haass has put everything in deeper historical context he serves up an equally breezy and comprehensive International Relations 101 introduction covering everything from NATO, the United Nations, global trade, diplomatic relations and everything in between. He concludes The World with a look where the planet might be heading, with special attention paid to such rising challenges as human-induced climate change, dwindling resources, authoritarian populism (frequently at the expense of democratic rule) and mass migration. Lastly, he includes a list of books, publications and the like recommended to be helpful for keeping abreast of international developments.

Even though much of The World was a review for me I highlighted the heck out of it, proving Haass did a fine job covering such an expansive topic and explaining things well. If you wanna understand today’s world, this book (in addition to others like Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism ) is an ideal place to start.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

Old Books Reading Project: The Age of Catherine de Medici by J.E. Neale

Can I learn something from a book I didn’t like? I asked myself that question right after I finished J.E. Neale’s The Age of Catherine de Medici. Published in 1962, it’s been in my personal library for who knows how long. One hot summer night two years ago I brought it to the pub to read but after just one page I lost interest. Upon returning home I exiled the vintage paperback to a hidden nook and cranny in my personal library and promptly forgot about it. Then a week ago I was once again craving stuff on European history and decided to give The Age of Catherine de Medici another chance. The good news is since it’s a short book just over 100 pages I read it in no time. The bad news is I still didn’t like it.

Part of the Harper Torchbook series of”quality paperbacks” specializing in fields like religion, philosophy, history and economics The Age of Catherine de Medici is a collection of four lectures the author gave at Alexandra College in Dublin in 1938 and four year later at University College of North Wales (now Bangor University). As one would guess, it covers the mid-1500s when Catherine was queen, and later queen mother to three sons, each of which would have a turn ruling France. I figured since they’re lectures, The Age of Catherine de Medici would make for light reading. Unfortunately,  I never warmed up to Neale’s writing style.

While being the queen mother to three sons might sound impressive, the reality was otherwise. All three kings were weak and ineffective rulers, with their respective reigns, in Hobbesian terms best described as nasty, brutish and short. Their mother Catherine, lacking the intelligence, political savvy and indomitable will when compared to say, England’s monarch Elizabeth was ill-equipped to hold the country together during this period of extreme civil and religious unrest. (She also had the added disadvantage of being Italian-born, and being a foreigner was therefore was seen by many as ill-suited to guide the nation.) Dubbed by historians as the Religious Wars, the series of conflicts which ravaged France were in effect a decades long civil war, as Catholics and Protestant Huguenots fought back and forth for control of France. (Although arguably, much of the time Catholics were the aggressors.)

Neale’s book confirmed for me our species’ bad reputation for communal violence, especially toward those seen as threats or worse, potential threats to our well-being. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when Catholics in Paris and throughout France rose up and murdered thousands of Protestant men, women and children bears an eerie resemblance to such later large-scale atrocities as the   Indonesian mass killings of 1965–19966, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the murderous “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia from 1992–1995. An unpleasant, but perhaps necessary reminder of what we’re capable of.

About Time I Read It: Twilight of Empire by Greg King and Penny Wilson

When I noticed Greg King and Penny Wilson ‘s 2017 book Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs in new the books section of the public library a few years ago it struck me as the kind of book I’d possibly read. Thanks to one of my late night ventures down the Wikipedia rabbit hole I was already somewhat familiar with the Mayerling Incident, in which the middle-aged heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne killed himself along with the 17 year old mistress at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889. I also saw a fictionalized version of the tragic murder-suicide in the 2006 film The Illusionist and read of another in Elisabeth de Waal’s 2014 novel The Exiles Return. Then, a few weeks ago feeling the need to read something set in, or about Austria for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured an ebook edition through Overdrive.

Even though he was the Crown Prince of one of Europe’s grandest royal families by late 1888 Rudolf’s life was a mess. Open to progressive political ideas and willing to grant greater freedom to the empire’s diverse population of subjects his pleas for political liberalization were repeatedly dismissed by his father Emperor Franz Joseph, a reactionary autocrat. His marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, after a brief happy beginning had long since turned sour with Stéphanie spending most her time living abroad while Rudolf frequented Vienna’s taverns and brothels. His body ravaged by gonorrhea as the result of his wayward behavior, he drowned himself in a sea of alcohol and morphine. Lamenting his largely estranged wife would never give him the son he desperately wanted Rudolf had no one to blame but himself. (He’d infected  Stéphanie with gonorrhea rendering her infertile.) Thanks to years of childhood trauma at the hands of his domineering father, or poor Hapsburg genetics or both, Rudolf was a troubled man, emotionally unstable and in all likelihood bipolar.

Enter Baroness Mary Vetsera, the young daughter of an Austrian diplomat. With the total blessing of her social-climbing mother Mary pursed the Crown Prince with reckless abandon. For the better part of a year their ongoing affair was an open secret  to both his parents and the kingdom’s insular aristocracy. Even to this day some speculate Rudolf, in a move to escape the overbearing shadow of his father, entertained thoughts of divorcing Stéphanie, marrying Mary and proclaiming himself King of Hungary. (At this time Austro-Hungary was a dual monarchy.) But as the months went by and the affair lost momentum, Rudolf’s depression worsened. Finally, in late January of 1889 Rudolf and Mary slipped away to the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling. Leaving specific instructions for those in attendance not to open his bedroom door “not even for the Emperor” Rudolf along with Mary retired for the evening. Early the next morning two gunshots rang out. After breaking down the door  Rudolf’s assistants discovered the blood-soaked  bodies of the two lovers sprawled on the bed.

The brutal royal murder-suicide scandalized polite Austrian society. Conspiracy theories abounded for decades with some pointing their fingers at Germany, accusing the Kaiser’s agents of assassinating Rudolf since he was seen by some as an impediment to closer German-Austrian military ties. Bad enough the future Emperor lay dead and without ever siring a male heir but to be found lying next to his dead mistress magnified the tragedy. Suicide, as well as murder considered mortal sins according to Catholic teaching Rudolf could be denied a Christian burial. (Interestingly, according to the book’s authors Vienna was already in the grips of a suicide epidemic with the newspapers filled with lurid accounts of the city’s residents killing themselves.) In the end the Crown Prince was ruled to have been in a state of “mental imbalance” at the time and was thus granted the proper royal funeral rites, much to the relief of his devout Catholic parents.

For the most part I enjoyed Twilight of Empire with my only complaint being I thought the authors might have spent a bit too much time discussing conspiracy theories. However, I can see how many Austrians, when confronted with the uncomfortable truth the Crown Prince murdered himself and his mistress might take solace in rumors that Rudolf was a victim and not a perpetrator. Ironically though, Rudolf’s actions prefigured that of his father’s. When the Emperor decided to invade Serbia in 1914 and in doing so launch the First World War, his actions would lead to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another act of murder-suicide, but on a much larger scale.

About Time I Read It: Judas by Amos Oz

In late 2018 I was saddened by the news Israeli author Amos Oz had passed away. I’d only read Between Friends, his collection of eight interconnected short stories and short coming of age novel Panther in the Basement but longed to read more, especially his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness. For some inexplicable reason earlier this week I found myself in the mood for more of his fiction so I borrowed an ebook version of his 2016 historical novel Judas. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I’m pleased to say I enjoyed this one the most. There’s even a good chance it will wind up making my year-end list of Favorite Fiction.

It’s 1959 and Jerusalem is a city divided between Israel and Jordan. Shmuel Ash, originally from Tel Aviv, is a young idealist who’s lost his way. His steady girlfriend recently dumped him to marry her boring ex-boyfriend. The socialist cell he’d been a member of, passionately debating in smoke-filled coffee shops the role of the enlightened proletariat collapsed under the weight of its idealogical differences. Bereft of funds after the bankruptcy of his family’s business he’s forced to quit his university studies, even though he’s on the cusp of graduating. Unmoored and with nothing to lose, he answers a help-wanted posting for a live-in caretaker for an elderly man. For a modest stipend plus room and board Shmuel stays up half the night bantering with Gershom Wald, a crutch-dependent invalid as cantankerous as he is erudite and brilliant. Sharing this eccentric household is Atalia Abarbanel, the beautiful 40-something widow of Gerhom’s dead son and daughter of Shealtiel Abravanel, onetime member of the Jewish National Council who, because of his opposition to making Israel a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs was branded a traitor by his fellow Zionists and forced to resign in disgrace.

Surrounded by bookshelves stacked with dusty old tomes in a half-dozen languages Shmuel and Wald’s late-night arguments chiefly revolve around Israeli politics and, because Shmuel until recently was a religious scholar specializing in Jesus as viewed from a Jewish perspective, the role of Judas as betrayer. As they argue night after night, the reader begins to wonder if being a traitor is necessarily a bad thing. Fully aware “courageous people have appeared who were ahead of their time and were called traitors or eccentrics” Shmuel muses “anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change.”

But no matter how much he debates Wald, nothing can take his mind off the beguiling Atalia. She drifts in and out of his presence, elusive yet nevertheless attentive. In spite of her aloofness, she invites him to share a series of chaste, though pleasant evenings on the town. During their conversations she regularly reminds him there’s been a series of admiring young men who preceded him as Wald’s caretaker and each one left broken hearted. But Shmuel is a young man in love and relishes their bittersweet relationship.

With its secluded alleyways, Hungarian restaurants, Romanian-born police officers and sizable first-generation immigrant citizenry, the Jerusalem of Amos Oz’s Judas feels more like the Jewish quarter of some pre-war European capital than a Middle Eastern city. Dark, wintery and possessing a distinct Mitteleuropa flavorJerusalem in essence becomes the novel’s fourth character.

Judas has been called a love story, coming of age novel, intellectual novel, historical novel, philosophical re-appraisal of the Biblical character of Judas and allegory for the modern state of Israel. Not only is it all of these things, it’s also a terrific novel. Please consider it highly recommended.