JERICHO MOSAIC - Edward Whittemore - W.W. Norton 374 pp. $16,95

A spy saga rich with Middle-East history

On both a human and historical level, Jericho Mosaic makes comprehensible, as no other recent book does, the history of the Middle East since the end of World War II. And that is only one of the novel's multitude of virtues.

Jericho Mosaic is the final novel of Edward Whittemore's magnificent and ambitious Jerusalem Quartet, and, like the ear. lier books - Jerusalem Poker, Sinai Tapestry, Nile Shadows - it is, first of all, an intricate, subtly wrought, exciting tale of espionage. Whittemore is the wisest, gentlest and most knowledgeable of guides - without illusion, yet with a vision all his own.

He is also a wonderful storyteller, and in Jericho Mosaic he gives us a pure and beautiful tale - one that is as fierce as it is gentle. Jericho Mosaic, by itself, is an astonishing achievement, equal to the best of recent historical novels -Thomas Flanagan's The Year of the French, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. John Williams' Augustus - but the quartet, in its cumulative power, is closer in range and effect to a novel such as War and Peace.

The comparison is not excessive. Like Tolstoy, Whittemore shows us the relation between the large movements of history and their most ordinary human sources. He describes and understands the mysteries, not only of the Syrian Secret Service or the KGB's involvement in the PLO, but of the desires and ravages of the human heart. And his narrative moves so effortlessly, from character to character and from year to year - from the beauty and pain and loss associated with love affairs, friendships and wars - that one finishes the book finding it difficult to believe that it does not contain the true history of what has taken place in the Middle East within living memory.

The espionage tale at the center of Jericho Mosaic is as unpredictable and gripping as it is plausible. Yossi, a young Israeli, allegedly killed during the 1956 war in the Sinai, is recruited by Tajar, head of Israeli intelligence. Yossi becomes an agent who is "to penetrate Arab culture so deeply that he would never come back."

The story of how he changes his identity. builds his new life, survives the various Syrian regimes, passes his information along and learns to become the respected Syrian businessman Halim - especially the way in which his intelligence-gathering is decisive in the Six Day War of 1967 - is as complex and compelling as the best of Le Carre.

Respected as "the conscience of the Arab world" and known to his countrymen as "the incorruptible one," Yossi-Halim displays an idealism that makes him credible not only to others, but to himself.

"What seems to have happened," he says to Tajar when they meet in Beirut after the Six Day War, "is that I've become Halim. With you I'm still Yossi, but it's more the way a person recalls his childhood, the person he used to be."

And when, near the end of the book, an Israeli general says that Yossi was "the most valuable agent Israel ever had." Yossi has become so real in ordinary human ways that we nod in assent when Tajar whispers, "Oh yes ... he was that too."

For Yossi and Tajar, like the other major characters in the novel (Bell, the one-eyed former British master spy, living in retirement in Jericho, Abu Musa and Moses the Ethiopian, Bell's friends and protectors; Anna and Assef, Yossi's wife and son; Ali and Yousef, Abu Musa's nephews), are fascinating first of all for what they accomplish in the world, and for the intelligence and courage with which they do so, but they are extraordinary finally for who they are.

In abundant detail and with the most unerring eye, and while he describes the complexities of geopolitical events, Whittemore calls our attention. again and again, to the mysterious workings of chance and fate as they are evidenced in the strange and often beautifully surprising motions of individual souls and lives. Like Tolstoy, Whittemore has his own idiosyncratic vision, one that enables us to see to the human center of history in a thoroughly original way.

Thus, sitting in his garden in the lowest and oldest village on earth, Bell, Britain's master spy during World War II, finds himself thinking of "how true it is that the turnings on the path are often so subtle, so unsuspected at the lime, that we pass them by with a wave and a smile and a near arrogant ease. Yet when we look back in life the reasons for our choices seem unbearably flimsy and silly, which is confusing and even frightening. A totally different life which could have worked out as well as the one we have?"

At the heart of Whittemore's vision is an understanding of the ways in which exceptional individuals are often motivated not by power or glory, but by things more routine and more mystical: by memory and by dreams.

Jericho Mosaic begins in the years immediately following World War I when Tajar, a young boy, wanders the streets and alleys of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is "a dream from antiquity suddenly stirring to life after 400 years of slumber under the stupefying decadence of the Ottoman Empire."

Above all Whittemore notes, Tajar "loved being different people at different moments, imagining secret lives for himself, imagining himself to be all the men whose paths he crossed"

Tajar becomes the founder and first director tor the Mossad, the grandrabbi of espionage as Yossi later calls him In penetrating Arab countries no other agent can match his skill. "This talent for secret worlds was wholly natural to him," we are told, "a result of having grown up in Jerusalem at a time when all its races and tongues mingled freely, before the strife of later years caused the various communities to withdraw and isolate themselves one from the other."

More than this, though, it is Tajar's feeling for place - his love for the stones of Jerusalem and for the way they whisper to him through his fingertips that gives him " a vision that guided his entire life." It is this vision, the novel demonstrates, that makes his agents revere him, that becomes the source, of their faith and daring.

"Place." Whittemore states, "is the beginning of memory," and in this novel cities are major characters. The portraits of Jerusalem, Jericho, Damascus and Beirut are gorgeously rendered, astonishing in their power. Whittemore evokes the here and now of these cities (''Hostages were merely a new kind of money in Beirut. They were barter goods like animal skins in a frontier region.") and shows us how the history of a particular place - its past and the dreams dreamt there over millenniums - are as much the cause of things as any mere political event.

"Jericho." reflects Abu Musa, the wealthy Arab patriarch and grower of fruit trees who earlier in his life had ridden with the forces of Lawrence of Arabia, "is a crossing of history ... We sit but fifteen miles from Jerusalem and a little more from Amman, and Jerusalem is midway between Amman, the ancient Greek city of Philadelphia, and the sea. Jerusalem is holy and biblical Rabbat Ammon or Amman is where King David put Uriah the Hittite in the forefront of battle to be killed, so he might enjoy the dead man's wife Bathsheba, who gave the king a son called Solomon. Thus the mountains and the valley, the deserts and the sea, lust and wisdom and murder and empire, these various profane and sacred causes of man all find their crossroads in Jericho, which. is wily we grow oranges here. To refresh those who are forever passing through."

Whittemore's lyric and philosophical rendering of such peaceful musings is matched by his stark and cold-eyed depictions tot the most awful atrocities and cruelties of our time.

"Even given man's sad weakness for self delusion," we are told after the massacre at Lod airport, "the evidence of darkness and insanity in human affairs sometimes seemed overpowering to Tajar"

And in Lebanon, which to Tajar is "gangsterism on a scale the world has never even imagined before," the horrors defy credulity. There, hatred and fear become as important as money: "The Christians tied prisoners to auto mobiles and dragged them through their mountain villages while children cheered, until the bodies tell apart. In their areas the Palestinians extracted information by cutting up prisoners with blow-torches and welding irons, a part at a time." Halim watches as the private armies fight with one another, "financed by the Arab powers, who all found Lebanon a covenant place to do their killing without the precarious political situations they invariably faced at home."

The story of Tajar arid Yossi, of how their lives intersect with those of Bell and his protectors arid their families - and of how these are part of the central crossings of recent history - is made credible for us because Whittemore understands bow ephemeral this world is, how strange and dreamlike it can be even - especially - to those who actively determine its major historical avid political realities.

"People in this part of the world have always had a thin grasp of reality." Tajar says to Yossi, It's a place of wish and fantasy."

Thus, while Whittemore dramatizes love affairs and war scenes and international intrigue with dazzling brilliance, his depiction of place and character and time is what remains remarkable and original. It is Whittemore's special genius to make plausible - to see - the magical connections between the ordinary arid the extraordinary. The tale he tells is biblical in tone, arc, scope and power - and yet Jericho Mosaic is only the narrative of a series of events that follow one another plausibly because, like life itself, the turnings are inevitable, surprising and, more often than not, amazingly small

I've never known anyone who wasn't astonished at seeing the Jordan for the first time," Tajar remarks near the book's close "To be so small, just a quiet little stream a few yards across and shallow and warm and yet to be so famous. It's always imagined quite differently."

Jericho Mosaic is the final book in what is one of the most wonderful achievements in 20th-century literature. Whittemore's quartet is more politically astute than Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, and as shrewd about the mysteries and manners of the human heart as Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. The sensibility that informs it has the genius of the greatest of story tellers. Without illusion, but with supreme intelligence and a generous heart, Whittemore shows us just how painful, beautiful arid surprising, how mysterious arid strange, life's reversals can be, and how our struggles with ourselves and others can ultimately seem to change time itself.

Jay Neugeboren's novels include "The Stolen Jew" and "Before My Life Began" He recently won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Short Story Prize and is the only American author to have done so for six consecutive years.

© Jay Neugeboren from The Philadelphia Inquirer - Sunday June 14. 1987

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©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016