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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Even History's Great Heroes Were Human : SACRIFICE OF ISAAC: A Novel by Neil Gordon ; Random House $22, 304 pages

August 08, 1995|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From a literary point of view, the explanatory afterword to "Sacrifice of Isaac" is superfluous. But you know why Neil Gordon, a first novelist, deemed it wise: Many people will no doubt resent a writer exploring, even in fiction, the idea that heroes of the Holocaust could be morally impure, that founders of Israel could be flawed, blinkered, deceitful, merely human.

Still, Gordon's end-of-the-book apologia is unnecessary, for this novel stands solidly on its own as a shrewd and haunting examination of paternal sins and filial duties.

Gordon makes his theme clear--much too clear, in fact--in the novel's title. In the book of Genesis, God tests Abraham's faith by asking him to slay his son, Isaac, who is spared only after Abraham shows himself ready to obey his own creator.

Abraham, of course, is the father of Judaism--and his analogue in this story is the fictional Gen. Yosef Benami, a father of the Israeli state renowned for smuggling hundreds of Jews out of Vienna during World War II. Gen. Benami has just died when the novel opens, and his younger, American son, Luke, must return to Israel to attend the state funeral and settle his father's estate; his mother, long divorced from Luke's father, committed suicide years earlier, and Luke's brother Danni was disinherited following his desertion from the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur war of 1973.

The general's will--both document and determination--sets the novel in motion. Benami, who achieved great wealth in the Promised Land, has unexpectedly bequeathed half his estate to Danni despite his still-festering betrayal, which struck the general where it would hurt the most. Luke needs to find his missing brother in order to dispose of the estate, but he soon finds himself needing to know more about the father-hero and brother-traitor he scarcely knows.

Gordon's title, by telegraphing the novel's theme, robs it of some power. The reader knows what to look for; we're always conscious of the moral dilemma at the book's core and so never have to come to terms with it ourselves.

Gordon doesn't extend the Abraham allegory much beyond Benami, either, nor takes it in unexpected directions; the general's sacrifice is literal with regard to his own, assimilationist father, a byproduct of "Schindler's List"-like rescues and "Sophie's Choice"-like decisions.

Luke comes to understand that as he tracks down Danni, who has devoted his life (after enriching himself as an outlaw art dealer) to comprehending his personal and cultural history and, above all, to documenting his father's errors. More importantly, though, Luke, and perhaps Danni as well, comes to know that the general's "crimes of existence" cannot be judged by man; they may have been covered up for national and personal reasons, but they were born of historical necessity.

"Sacrifice of Isaac" is an ambitious novel, obviously, intent on re-humanizing historical assumptions, reproducing them in more realistic, more ambiguous shades of gray. At bottom, though, the book is a thriller, if a high-class one.

The action, involving hidden compartments and spies and Gypsy bars and gunplay, is exciting, but the novel is best when it stands still, especially when Danni's partner, Chevejon, takes center stage.

Luke is a sympathetic character, being lost and longing and over his head, but Chevejon--who becomes Luke's guardian angel as well as his captor--is fascinating, judicious, direct and loyal as well as manipulative, cynical and opportunistic.

He represents better than anyone the moral complexity at the heart of "Sacrifice of Isaac"--the fact that good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things, that ideals and individuals must sometimes be weighed against each other on the same unforgiving scale. While those who forget the past may indeed be condemned to repeat it, those who remember the past are likewise sure to remember selectively.

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