Every day at 5.30am, Amos Oz takes a walk in the desert. The jackals in the nearby caves are only just rising. The newspapers, heralding yesterday's bloodbath, have not yet arrived. 'The desert is a great humbler,' says the author once dubbed the Zionist Orwell. 'It helps me look at everything in proportion.' In a land teeming with noise - denouncements, screams and sirens - Arad, in the northern Negev, is mostly removed from the Israel of headlines and news flashes. Oz is quietly but forcefully spoken, his speech laced with an almost aphoristic clarity. The desert is fertile terrain for the novelist. 'It's because so much of my work is set against a Jerusalem background that I need my distance from it,' he says. Oz belongs to the generation of Israeli writers that came of age with the state and who, unlike Israel's younger authors, remain politically committed and, in contrast to pre-statehood writers, privilege humanism over ideology. Shimon Peres has said Oz, a founding member of Israel's Peace Now movement, should become the country's next prime minister. The writer has been acquainted with all of Israel's presidents since Ben-Gurion - bar Ariel Sharon. Yet politics are never more than a distant white noise in Oz's narratives, which are mostly quiet and slow-burning domestic accounts of intimacies under strain. 'If I write a book about a son borrowing his father's car for the weekend, having a beer and crashing into the traffic lights, half the world will say: 'This is about the Palestinians, the occupation, the settlements and Sharon'.' In the years after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Oz's non-fiction credits outstripped his fiction. But journalism remains his sidebar. Oz uses a different colour pen for his fiction and essays, careful not to allow any traffic between the two. Novels require him to set aside his commitment to peace. 'If I'm full of rage I write an essay, not a story. I cannot write about a character I hate because I won't understand them. I write novels beyond rage, desire and ambition. I write them with curiosity, compassion and irony.' Oz wasn't always a peacenik. He experienced his first spell of fanaticism as a child in the twilight years of the British mandate, determined to construct a rocket to blow up Buckingham Palace. Fortunately, the British staged their retreat before it was completed. Oz first emerged as a wordsmith in early childhood, writing biblical poems in which vengeance was perpetrated on Israel's adversaries. His most recent work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is a portrait of a childhood defined by the birth pangs of the new country. The book reveals the making of a writer in the dank, down-at-heel city of 1940s Jerusalem, at the same time as it portrays the growing pains of the nascent Israeli state. To call A Tale mere memoir or autobiography would scarcely do justice to its seamless meshing of private and public history. It stretches over four generations of a family while encompassing the dreams and disillusionments of an ancestral land that failed, inevitably, to deliver on its dreamed-of promise. Oz offers up his family as an emblem of the early Israeli psyche. His father, Arieh Klausner, was a devoted and rigorous scholar who never attained the lectureship he sought in a country brimming with overqualified academics. He was forced to settle for a post in the periodicals room of the National Library. Oz's melancholic mother, Fania, hailed from an affluent family in Ukraine, and ached with nostalgia for what she recalled as a refined, genteel youth. The dashed expectations of Jerusalemites were expressed as a yearning for Tel Aviv. The city over the hills was imagined as the locus of light and freedom, cultural effervescence and fiery political deliberations. '[Jerusalem] was an invisible cathedral of yearnings and longings - longings for forbidden Europe, longings for Tel Aviv, longings for the kibbutzim and the pioneering life, longings for some intellectual intensity which actually existed in Jerusalem but somehow did not feel real enough. Real life was always elsewhere.' Growing up under the spectre of the Nazi death camps, as a child during Israel's war of liberation, Oz was forever trying to discern the ominous realities his parents attempted to conceal from him. 'They knew that the destiny of Jewish Jerusalem was hanging on its thread, but they wouldn't share it with me,' he says. 'I had to intersect the coded exchanges between grown-ups. Everything had a latent significance. Everything was like a suitcase with a double binding.' The governing presence of A Tale is the ghost of Fania, who committed suicide when her son was 12. 'I thought it was irresponsible. This was just not the way to behave.' The book's tragi-comic register reflects the dual nature of his mother's death. 'I wanted every page, including my mother's despair and death, to be at the same time comic and tragic; comic because she died a very provincial death. She died of unfulfilled romantic dreams, of an overdose of romantic aspirations, of the love of arts and the frustration of that love.' For a weighty saga of love and war, A Tale is a remarkably quiet and underwrought work. But, then, it's the product of five decades of silence.