It looks and feels like a book, I know, but I promise you that what you hold in your hand is an axe. A paper axe, it's true, but an axe nonetheless.

I'll explain.

Jericho Mosaic is the capstone of Ted Whittemore's Jerusalem Quartet, one of the most ambitious literary endeavors of the 20th Century. Like Robert Musil's Man of Qualities and Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, Whittemore's magnum opus explores the great themes of this and every other age. War and peace, friendship and death, loss and betrayal. Dreams.

An historical novel of subtle and ferocious dimensions, Jericho Mosaic is, above all else, a tale of espionage inspired by the tragic heroism of a spy named Ell Cohen.

A Syrian Jew and native Arab-speaker raised in Egypt, Cohen was taken up by the Mossad when he and his family emigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Like Whittemore's protagonist, Yossi-Halim, Cohen was given training and sent to Argentina with a false identity, there to build a legend for himself as a prelude to his real mission: posing as a businessman while ferreting out the secrets of the Syrian Army's general staff in Damascus.

For Halim, as for Cohen, nothing could have been more dangerous or more likely to end in a dusty square, with a tortured man at the end of a rope. And yet, knowing the dangers, Cohen left everything behind - family, country and identity - to risk his life for a dream.

Forty years later, Syria and Israel are still arguing over his bones.

* * *

For Whittemore, the spy was the quintessential figure of his time. And why not? Whittemore was born into an era of assassination and conspiracy, conflict and coup, world wars and Cold War. Spies like Richard Sorge, whose espionage operations provided the framework for Whittemore's first novel, were men whose lives became the secret fulcrums of their age.

A graduate of Yale, that great incubator of spooks, Whittemore was himself an intelligence agent for many years. Entering the CIA in the 1950s - the very apex of the Cold War - he became a spy in the truest sense. Not an espionage bureaucrat on the 9-to-5 shift in suburban Langley, but a NOC - a field agent under Non-Official Cover working against unforgiving adversaries. It is the spook's equivalent of a trapeze-artist working without a net. Slip, and the embassy won't save you.

So he had an inkling, at least, of the slow-motion heart attack that must have been Eli Cohen's daily life. It is not an existence that is easily imagined. Immured within a fiction, a man such as Cohen lives in an atmosphere of secret and unremitting anxiety. Like background radiation from the Big Bang, it is everywhere and nowhere, suffusing the very air he breathes. Surveillance is presumed, spontaneity forbidden. Exposure waits like a tick in the tall grass, biding its time for a single, careless gesture. Under such circumstances, life is reduced to a series of desperate and lonely calculations, even as the spy plays a gregarious and carefree role.

And yet….as Whittemore knew so well, there are moments-still and timeless instants in which the world is suddenly, briefly, apprehended as a God-given fact, a reality that transcends even the most frightening circumstances. One such moment occurs on the Syrian-Lebanese border, after Halim has been taken for an unexpected ride by a Syrian intel-officer who may, or may not, mean him well. Standing on the terrace of a small stone house overlooking the Bekaa valley,

Halim was struck by the…..stillness and the sweeping beauty of the view. Goats' bells tinkled from some distant crevice in the hills. A thin line of smoke rose far away in the clear sky. The terrace was blissfully remote, rich with the smell of earth and sunshine. Colonel Jundi smiled, gesturing toward the valley.

Syria. he said.

Well, Lebanon, anyway.

Whittemore gets it right. He gets all of it right. His grasp of the Middle East, its history, customs and geopolitics, is deep and unerring. As deep, almost, as his grasp of human nature, and its primacy over borders and maps, the abstractions of generals and politicians. At one point, when Halim's game has been run, an Israeli general opines that he was "the most valuable agent Israel ever had." To which Halim's handler, Tajar - himself the founder of the Mossad and the "grand rabbi of espionage" - replies, "Oh yes.. he was that too."

Nor is it only the natures of great men that Whittemore reveals. Like Dickens, he understands the tragedy of great souls with small destinies. And so we're given Halim's closest friend, Ziad, the hack-journalist and Baath party hanger-on, of whom Tajar remarks, " I wouldn't imagine he'll go very far. But then most people don't ... anywhere, do they?"

The ellipses are Whittemore's-and Tajar's.

The simple truth is that Ted Whittemore was one of the best and least-known writers of a lowdown, dark, and dishonest age. The books that he's given us, beginning with Quin's Shanghai Circus, are among the great "war novels" of our time - as luminous as The Red Badge of Courage, as chastening as The Naked and the Dead. That the wars are fought without "Iines" or uniforms hardly matters: the wounds go just as deep, and sometimes deeper than, bullets. Kafka understood:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound and stab us ... We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Here then, reader, is an axe Ted Whittemore made.

© Jim Hougan
Charlottesville, 2002

Jim Hougan, a former editor of Harper's magazine, novelist and journalist, has written extensively about the U.S. intelligence community. His most recent novel, Kingdom Come, was published by Ballantine in the summer of 1999.


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016