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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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