Six months ago, f/k/a posted its first book review, taking a close look at Jeremy Blachman’s Anonymous Lawyer: A Novel (Henry Holt and Co., 2006), which we considered to be way too much of a good thing. Our negative opinion was clearly a minority viewpoint among webloggers. Therefore, because f/k/a is not a must-have internet forum for publishers, I was quite surprised when Holt’s Marketing Director sent me another book to review — this time, an advance copy of Richard North Patterson’s novel Exile, which is scheduled to be released on Jan. 9, 2007.
Richard North Patterson, Exile
I’m a fan of both courtroom and international thrillers and was immediately interested in Exile‘s storyline: Thirteen years out of Harvard Law School, David Wolfe trashes a budding career in California politics and seemingly turns his back on his Jewish heritage, fiancee, and community, to defend a Palestinian woman (with whom he had a brief, secret love affair in law school that still haunts him), who is charged as the “handler” in the murder conspiracy of the Israeli Prime Minister, who was the victim of a suicide bombing in San Francisco.
Even more, I was intrigued by the publisher’s premise and promise: That the novel “has the power to teach people the nuances of the legitimate arguments on both sides” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while offering “a fair assessment of the genuine grievances, irrational blind spots, and historical justifications” of the combatants.
In August 2004, Evan Schaeffer wondered whether it mattered that the weblog version of Anonymous Lawyer was a “fictional “account of life in a large law firm. If Holt’s Marketing Director had read my response, he would know my predilection: As I noted then, “Me? I’ve gotten more truths from fiction than non-fiction.”
My state of ignorance or confusion concerning anything beyond the surface facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and my (self-assessed) lack of bias for one side over the other, probably make me a good candidate for putting Exile to the test as truth-illuminating fiction.
One thing seems clear: deep understanding of this conflict, whose resolution seems crucial for creating any hope of stability in the Middle East, won’t happen from merely staying up with daily news reports. Just yesterday (Dec. 13, 2006), we outsiders could have read “Court Lets Palestinians Sue Israeli Military: Immunity Denied In Certain Cases” and “Palestinians Kill Hamas-Linked Judge” in the Washington Post; plus the Haaretz Editorial from Tel Aviv, “Iran grows strong, the world yawns” (about the conference in Tehran of Holocaust deniers), and the Boston Herald editorial “Another tradegy in Gaza” (calling for the Hamas government in Palestine to resign, after the slaying of three children of a Fatah intelligence officer), and not have any real idea of the human turmoil and the genuine and imagined historical grievances behind them. Following up by reading today’s coverage of retaliations, accusations, and new tragedies would also not help much [-- update (Dec. 15, 2006): nor would more news like this, "Rival Factions Exchange Gunfire in West Bank, Gaza," Washington Post].
That’s why i was willing to give fiction a chance to put this important conflict into a fuller context and better relief. It helps, of course, that I heartily agree with the statement of prominent Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, which appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post “Q&A: Looking at Israel Through Many Eyes” (Dec. 13, 2006):
Q: What can fiction accomplish in portraying a conflict that is all around you that nonfiction cannot?
A: Fiction can bring up the complexities, give options that people would never think about. Fiction also introduces human beings. In my first novel, “The Lover,” there was an Arab boy who worked in a garage. And so many people said to me afterward, “When I see the Arab boy in the garage where I go, I look at him differently after reading your book.” . . . And I was proud I was able to bring Arab characters to my novels. Of course they are complex, they have problems, but they are real. Fiction can enlarge.
Indeed, to further test the fiction versus non-fiction hypothesis, I am — once I actually do review the novel, immediately below — also going to briefly discuss three non-fiction books that have recently been published about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:
- Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 2006)
- Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf, October 3, 2006)
- Ali Abunimah’s One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse
(Metropolitan Books, October 31, 2006)
In brief, I liked Exile a lot. Although I usually listen to action novels of this size (nearly 600 pages; 21 hours on audio), the story never got bogged down on paper. Exile works very well as a complex criminal courtroom drama, with Patterson demonstrating his background as a litigator, and presenting readers with interesting ethical and tactical issues (e.g., what do you do when interviewing witnesses targets them for immediate assassination?). The posture of the criminal case naturally leads the protagonist to travel to Israel and the West Bank in pursuit of evidence and background information.
The quick look behind the scenes of California politics is believable and interesting, as is the depiction of national security intrigue — in and between the USA and Israel — which pits worries about public image and political damage against the need of both prosecution and defense to learn material facts that go to the actual role and guilt of the defendant, Hana Arif, or the existence of an elaborate scheme to frame her. In addition, the protagonist’s romantic quandary, naivete and pain were well-drawn, as was his uncomfortable relationship with Hana’s angry husband, and her marital strife over how to raise their Moslem daughter.
With some reservations, I believe Patterson achieved his wider goal, which he says was stimulated by his “friendship with two brilliant advocates and experts with very different perspctives” — Alan Dershowitz, impassioned defender of Israel; and Jim Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, who challenged Patterson to write a novel that “combines the absorbing qualities of good fiction with a nuanced portrayal of the tragic conflict”. I believe that I’ve learned much about this multi-layered historical, geo-politcal, and religious struggle, through the pages of Exile. The new non-fiction books that I also perused were not as helpful on that score.
Patterson is known for courtroom thrillers. Although presented as a major venture “into unfamiliar territory,” Exile shares aspects of other Patterson books. For example, his 1993 novel Degree of Guilt also features the return of a lost love accused of murder, and a lawyer faced with missing and conflicting evidence, old emotions, doubts as to his client’s innocence, and ethical questions over whether to take the case and which evidence to lose. Also, Patterson’s Protect and Defend, like Exile, uses a high-profile court case to look deeply into an issue of great social importance — late-term abortion, parental consent, and the related political battle created by a Supreme Court nomination.
With his experience weaving legal and political thrillers, it’s not surprising that Patterson has written an absorbing piece of entertainment. Although he surely does a lot of background research for all of his novels, it appears that Patterson literally went great distances — as does the protagonist — to understand the perspectives of leaders and citizens on all sides of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, from many walks of life. As a result, the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle are spread before us (not fully assembled, of course), as we glimpse the demands on Israeli politicians who dare to seek a peaceful compromise, the fear of Israeli soldiers and humiliation of Palestinian travelers at West Bank checkpoints, the early imprinting of hate by atrocities and family suffering that propels the mission of even educated Palestinians, and the religious certainty of Israeli settlers. The question is always there: if history is crucial to understanding the feelings and sorting the equities, whose version do we believe and when does that history start?
Patterson’s conclusion, in a publicity “conversation,” rings true:
“In general, all of my encounters in the Middle East made it clear that the most committed antagonists are incapable of seeing this tragedy for the complex thing it is, because they are transfixed by their own narratives and paradigms.”
If there is one weakness in the tapestry and jigsaw puzzle presented by Patterson, it is the failure to present the pieces that represent the vast majority of people who we so often hear want their leaders to find a solution — who, despite wounds and worries, want an end to the violence and fear that pervades their intertwined lives on this small piece of land. Of course, it is “the most committed antagonists” who keep the conflict heated and intractable and make the storyline crackle.
Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, Nov. 2006) is far less helpful than Exile in giving flesh and blood human reality to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, to be fair to the former President, that was not the purpose of this 288-page book. Carter would surely point those who want history and context to his 1983 work The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East. At best, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid sketches the human element of the conflict in the bland, generalized conclusions that might be found in American history textbooks — except that he clearly points the finger at Israel for violating the basic human and civil rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and at the American Administration for “unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.”
In this book, Carter focuses on the diplomatic history, the role of leaders from the relevant nations and communities, and the current geo-political realities. He notes that “Leaders on both sides ignore strong majorities that crave peace, allowing extremist-led violence to preempt all opportunities for building a political consensus.” By using the term “apartheid” and making it clear that peace is impossible until Israel starts obeying international law, its own commitments, and the wishes of the majority of its own citizens, Carter has drawn strong criticism from many sources in Israel. His sincere, longterm commitment to bring about a lasting peace with dignity for all residents of the region does not make for compelling reading, but it is definitely thought-provoking.
In Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide (Knopf, October 3, 2006), Jeffrey Goldberg shows that the memoir format can humanize and help illuminate the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Goldberg is an American Jew who moved to israel while in college and found himself serving as a guard in the Ketziot prison camp. There, he began a relationship with the Palestinian prisoner, Rafiq Hijazi, that continued for 15 years, during which Goldberg became a New Yorker correspondent and Hijazi spent time in the USA as a graduate student. Goldberg is honest about the fact that he brought peculiarly American traits to this cross-cultural experience (including a “solutionism” that expected a logial answer for every intractable problem), and that he “wanted to… have it all — my parochialism, my universalism, a clean conscience, and a friendship with my enemy.”
I found Goldberg’s writing style (with frequent bits of humor and insight) enjoyable. When he visited the modest home of Rafiq’s parents, Rafiq assures Goldberg that his father “doesn’t like Jews but he likes Jews who visit him.” Goldberg does a good job of showing the struggle to build and maintain a friendship despite their differences and distrust, and in the face of ugly events. If you’re looking for a broad understanding of the history and people involved in this conflict the book will not suffice. However, the probing focus on one American’s experience and the story of one Palestinian family offers its own rewards. Goldberg ends wishing that his one-on-one dialogue and relationship could be replicated a million times between Israeli and Palestinians. But, he also notes:
“An irreducible truth remained: The maximum Israel could give did not match the minimum Palestinians could accept.”
Ali Abunimah’s One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, October 31, 2006) is written by the Jordanian-American son of Palestinian refugees. Although it gives a brief glimpse at the experiences of one relatively well-to-do Palestinian family who had to flee their home, this small volume is more like a thorough white paper, meant to convince readers that the two-state “solution” is bound to fail, because the lives of Israelis and Palestinians are so geographically and economically intertwined. Abunimah argues that only one state shared by two equal peoples can give Israel the security it needs or Palestinians the rights they must have. There is a considerable discussion meant to assuage Israeli fears over their fate, if forced to live in a country with a Palestinian majority. Recent experience in South Africa and Ireland is used to support the notion that warring factions can chose to live together in peace.
This is an interesting book, with a thoughtful approach, that is unlikely to convince many people on either side of the divide or within the international community, which has long been on record supporting the two-state scenario. Unless you are an avid student of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or of the political science of nation-building, you will probably want to pass over One Country.
Until we outsiders understand more about the human beings who are embroiled and entrapped by this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can’t begin to understand the conflict or the difficulties in finding a solution. Also, from the safety of our homes in America and the security of our nationhood and political system, we cannot possibly understand what daily life must be like for Palestinian or Israeli or what an acceptable future looks like. Thoughtful fiction, written with a good faith intent to illuminate, can certainly help bridge that gap of knowledge and experience.
Exile fits that description, and is worth reading for its entertainment value. If your New Year’s resolution is either a) read more courtroom thrillers, and/or b) start to figure out why those Israelis and Palestinians can’t make peace, you might want to pre-order Exile now, or wait until Jan. 9, 2007 to pick one up or download it.
a stack of unread books–
against my lamp-lit window
reading in bed
my pulse flickering
the lightly held bookmark
blue September sky —
the wordless things
we want to know
… by Michael Dylan Welch
“a stack” – Roadrunner Haiku Journal
“reading in bed” – Open Window
“blue September sky — ” – The Heron’s Nest (Dec. 2006,
in mem. Francine Joy Porad)
new novel –
. . . . by dagosan