CITY OF SECRETS
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking, $22, 194 pages
Jerusalem is the city of secrets, a place of intrigue, violence and beauty during the time between the end of World War II and the founding of the state of Israel. It is here that Brand, the protagonist of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, City of Secrets, is attempting to reconstruct his life. Mr. O’Nan describes his story in a forward letter to his readers as “a spare, dark tale concerned with belief, identity and lost things.” It is a different kind of thriller — one which looks at the complex morality of actions and actors, as well as their deeds.
In 1946, when “City of Secrets” takes place, Palestine was a British Mandate riven with violent acts perpetrated by the Jewish underground — the pro-violence Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, and the somewhat less violent Haganah. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, the British rulers had a strictly limited immigration quota for Jews. The underground’s aim was to expel the British and make Palestine a state open to all Jews.
Brand is a Latvian Jew who had lost his entire family — wife Katya, baby sister, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Brand survived the camps “because he was young and could fix an engine.” In the winter after the war, “with no home to go back to and no graves to venerate, he signed on a Maltese freighter and landed in Jerusalem …”
In Jerusalem, the underground provided him with false papers, a new name — Jossi — and a taxi, which became his means of livelihood and service to the underground cell he joined. His job was to listen, but listening soon became action. At the command of Asher, his mysterious contact, Brand drove cell members to their destinations with guns and bombs; he ferried wounded men; he took part in raids, learning how to detonate explosives.
His “new Juliet, his new Eve” was a woman, originally from Vilna. Eva “was older than Brand by more than a decade, her eyes baggy, her jet hair threaded with gray. Before the war she’d been an actress … he could see she’d been striking once, the dark hair and sky-blue eyes, high cheekbones and generous lips, but at the corner of her mouth, a deep scar had healed badly, the nerve severed so that one side drooped in an exaggerated frown.” Eva’s job in the underground also was to listen, except that she carried it out through assignations at the King David Hotel.
The relationship between Eva and Brand was colored by the memory of their respective spouses, lost in the war. “As close as they’d become … not once, drunk or sober, had she said a word about her husband. He was her secret as surely as Katya was his, her memory recalled in solitude, tended reverently, like a well-kept grave. It was all he had, sometimes all he wanted — to be with her. Without her the world was meaningless, a round of tasteless meals and restless sleep. Eva was just a substitute. She knew it as surely as Brand did, their love a brittle consolation.”
Brand sees himself as a man who has lost his manhood, without hope, without a future. “The camps had made him selfish and doubtful. To have someone think well of him now was uncomfortable, because he knew the truth. He’d come to Jerusalem to change, to reclaim himself … After being an animal for so long, he didn’t think he’d ever be a man again, but if they believed in him, maybe it was possible.”
“He wasn’t weak enough to kill himself, but wasn’t strong enough to stop wanting to … memory seething inside him like a disease. Not only his sorrow, but the guard stomping on Koppelman’s face, the dog shaking the child, the wheels of the train slicing the idiot Gypsy boy in two — atrocities so commonplace that no one wanted to hear them. Everything he’d witnessed was his now, indelible yet unspeakable. His best chance was to forget, and so he kept on, letting the meaningless present distract him.”
But Brand came to realize that he was merely being used by the underground. At the climax of the novel — the real-life bombing of the King David Hotel — he rejected his “meaningless present” and moved into a future of renewal.
Brand, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, the central character of Mr. O’Nan’s previous novel, “West of Sunset,” is a man of talent filled with despair and self-loathing. But Brand is Mr. O’Nan’s creation, and thus can be led to an optimistic end. There are a few real people and events in “City of Secrets,” creating a realistic backdrop for this exciting tale. There are, however, many mysteries left unsolved. The reader never learns about Eva’s past, how she become a call girl for the underground, or her relationship to Asher. Yet “City of Secrets” is a good story well written, set in a fascinating and turbulent time.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.