YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW - MAY 29, 1987
A SPY DIVIDED
Jericho Mosaic by Edward Whittemore
374pp New York
WW Norton & Company $16.95
By Robert Elegant
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.
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.
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
But despite its
symbolism, "Jericho Mosaic" is fun
to read - and provocative.
latest novel, "From a Far Land," will be published