message of Mideast hope - Elegant espionage novel offers
much more than intrigue by Kathleen Christison
- By Edward Whittemore W.W. Norton, $ 16.95
books are often taken for espionage novels, but they are
far more, with a depth of character that surpasses all
but John le Carre and a stylistic elegance that may exceed
even le Carre's.
of the Middle East. Jericho Mosaic, the last
book in his Jerusalem Quartet, is a story of
the possibilities in that troubled area, the possibilities
for love and brotherhood if the peoples of the Middle
East could recognize their own human bonds and the senselessness
have a mythic quality. There is no single hero but a
clutch of legendary oddballs who lend the book an allegorical
air. There is Yossi, an Iraqi Jew who as an Israeli
agent assumes the identity of a Syrian, Halim, and lives
in Damascus for a quarter century, passing intelligence
back to Israel but also gradually taking on an Arab
persona so that Israel becomes merely an abstraction
for him. There is Tajar, his Israeli handler and friend,
an intelligence hero in his younger days who now lives
There are Anna
and Assaf, Yossi's wife and son, who think him dead,
both struggling to survive the peculiarly Middle Eastern
pain of their existence. And there is the eternal backgammon
game played by three Jericho legends: Bell, a retired
British intelligence type whose disfigured face has
ironically instilled awe in the Jericho populace;
Abu Musa, an aging
Arab who once fought with Lawrence of Arabia; and Moses,
an Ethiopian monk and eunuch who settled in Jericho
decades earlier as the retainer of an Ethiopian princess.
is not filled with suspense or packed with action like
most espionage novels. Its story is contrived, its coincidences
too frequent. But its lyrical style, its epic characters,
and its fine sense of time and place tend to make the
reader overlook what in any other novel would be serious
the Middle East ("It's a place of wish and fantasy,"
Tajar says. "You either believe absolutely, which
generally means religion, or you make-believe with equal
fervor. Either way, there's not much room left in the
middle"), and he understands human nature ("we
all have these rare and beautiful moments hidden away
within us," another character observes, "turnings
we could have taken in life but somehow - didn't...
live on within us, no farther away than the smell of
an olive wood fire ... time's unquiet ghosts").
His imagery is wonderful. One character's heart "stumbles"
upon hearing of a long lost friend; Yossi is described
as having "the wind-hardened look of a man who
only rested while mounted on the back of his camel."
The message of
Jericho Mosaic is hopeful, though not blindly or unrealistically
so. Jericho and the Middle East are timeless. The land
will always be there; people are transitory and must
adapt to the land and to each other. Jericho is a place "where memories and oranges ripen inseparably in
Company - St. Petersburg Times - May 31, 1987, Sunday,
Kathleen Christison formerly worked as a political analyst
on the Middle East for the CIA.