Jericho Mosaic by Edward Whittemore
374pp New York
WW Norton & Company $16.95

By Robert Elegant

YOSSI/HALIM was an Israeli mole who burrowed so deep into Syria that he was not quite certain whether he was an Israeli spying on Syria or a Syrian spying, however obliquely, on Israel. Called the Runner by the Mossad, his first employer, he embodies the theme of Edward Whittemore's charming novel: constant change amid unbroken continuity.

Mr. Whittemore, an American who lives in Jerusalem has not written a spy story, but a novel about a spy. The Runner is a true Janus figure, facing both ways and showing a dozen different faces at different times, as well as feeling conflicting emotions at all times. He is only certain that he is an Oriental - the implicitly pejorative term applied by Jewish settlers from elsewhere to the indigenous Jews of the Middle East. Like the Arabs, who are his antagonists and his brothers, he belongs in the beautiful and arid lands because his family has lived there for many centuries, perhaps millennium.

The author introduces much symbolism, but - remarkably - manages to be neither incomprehensible nor dreary about it, The title, "Jericho Mosaic" is freighted with symbolism - the place, the artistic technique. Lying between Israel and Syria, Jericho is among the oldest towns in the world. The ancient mosaic depicts a scene that could be seen today. Thus the continuity.

The novel follows a cosmopolitan group, from World War II to the present, as their lives diverge and intersect in ways they sometimes do not even know. Three curious characters are in Jericho: a one-eyed former English spymaster, now a hard-drinking holy man; an immensely old Ethiopian eunuch called Moses, and an Arab patriarch called Abu Musa.

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An antic mood sparkles through the tale. Imagine these three mounting an ancient, enormous steam-driven automobile with Abu Musa's two great-nephews to race to the Jordan River. They go to visit a monk no bigger than an 8-year-old child, who Is some 120 years old.

The almost biblical simplicity - and occasional angularity of the author's style befits a novel that is more allegory than thriller. (This is the concluding installment in Mr. Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet but it can be read independently.) Far more moving than the rare heroics are the incidental images, such as the little Arab girl found in a shell-shattered house in Old Jerusalem by an invading Israeli paratrooper in 1967. She apologizes "I'm so frightened, she said, This is my first war". Mr. Whittemore might have paid the reader the courtesy of setting such poignant dialogue within quotation marks. Their total absence creates a dreamlike, underwater effect

There is, however, nothing gently dreamlike about political narrative. The scroll of complex contemporary Middle Eastern history that unrolls over the 40 years covered in the "Jericho Mosaic" is nightmarish in its twists and complexities and prompts the reader to recall that the Palestine Liberation Organization was founded - with the great encouragement of the Soviet K.G.B. -only in 1964.

Since Mr. Whittemore tells his story through Israelis, it is skewed in Israel's favor. Nonetheless, he is both scathing and revealing about Israel, as well as the Arabs. When the Israelis invade Lebanon in force, the Runner laments that the action is worse than a crime, it is overwhelmingly stupid. He concludes that Israel has succumbed to the malady of the Middle East: embracing unreality and basing action upon it.

But despite its symbolism, "Jericho Mosaic" is fun to read - and provocative.

Robert Elegant's latest novel, "From a Far Land," will be published this summer

Contact: dreaming@jerusalemdreaming.info

©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016