A message of Mideast hope - Elegant espionage novel offers much more than intrigue by Kathleen Christison

JERICHO MOSAIC - By Edward Whittemore W.W. Norton, $ 16.95

Edward Whittemore's 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.

Whittemore writes 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 of war.

Whittemore's characters 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 through Yossi.

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.

Jericho Mosaic 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 flaws.

Whittemore understands 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 the sun."

Times Publishing Company - St. Petersburg Times - May 31, 1987, Sunday, City Edition.

Kathleen Christison formerly worked as a political analyst on the Middle East for the CIA.

Contact: dreaming@jerusalemdreaming.info

©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016