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Three Monkeys Online: "a largely unrecognised masterpiece."

Date: Jun 26 2008

With a sparkling lack of imagination, perhaps,  I find the best way to approach this  intriguing novel by the late Benjamin Tammuz – former literary editor of Israeli newspaper Haaretz – is through his co-national Amos Oz. But, read the following passage about opening gambits between author and reader, from Oz’s collection of essays on literature, The Story Begins, and you could mistakenly think of it as the opening to  a review of The Minotaur :

“The opening contracts are hide-and-seek and sometimes Simon Says and sometimes more like a game of chess. Or poker. Or a crossword puzzle. Or a prank. Or an invitation into a maze. Or an invitation to dance. Or a mocking courtship that promises but does not deliver, or delivers the wrong goods, or delivers what it had never promised or delivers just a promise.”

[Pg 115, The Story Begins - Amoz Oz, Chatto & Windus 1999]

 Here’s Tammuz’s taut and yet enigmatic opening contract with his reader:

“A Man, who was a secret agent, parked his hired car in a rain drenched square and took a bus into town. That day he had turned forty-one, and as he dropped into the first seat he came across , he closed his eyes and fell into a bleak contemplation of his birthday. The bus pulled up at the next stop, jerking him back to consciousness, and he watched as two girls sat down on the empty seat in front of him. The girl on the the left had hair the color of copper – dark copper with a glint of gold. It was sleek and gathered at the nape of her neck with a black velvet ribbon, tied in a cross-shaped bow. This ribbon, like her hair, radiated a crisp freshness, a pristine freshness to be found in things as yet untouched by a fingering hand. Whoever tied that ribbon with such meticulous care? wondered the man of forty-one. Then he waited for the moment when she would turn  her profile to her friend, and when she turned to her friend and he saw her features , his mouth fell open in a stifled cry. Or did it perhaps escape from his mouth? Anyway, the passengers did not react. ”

An invitation into the labyrinth, if ever there was one. An opening passage in which, with its casual revelation of something that is by definition secret (‘A man who was a secret agent’), Tammuz wins the reader’s confidence and interest, while at the same time leaving out far more than he volunteers. We’re given the protagonist’s secret occupation (and age, twice), but not his identity. The opening sentences are short and filled with practical details – but on closer examination each detail provokes more questions. Why has he parked his hired car? What action has taken place immediately prior to the novel’s opening?

There’s plenty to recommend Tammuz’s novel. It’s a complex story, told in layers (with a slight nod to Faulkner) but its language is confidently simple. At the heart of its labyrinth is a meditation on cultural identity, art, and Picasso’s painting of the Minotaur. It is, at the same time a love story, a spy story, and a reflection on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For me, though,  it’s that opening passage that remains the best recommendation to read what is , sadly, a largely unrecognised masterpiece –  though Graham Greene did describe it as ‘the best book of the year’, when it was first published back in 1989 (full marks to Europa Editions for keeping it in print).

--Andrew Lawless