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BOOK REIVEW / FICTION : British Officer, Jewish Refugee: A Wartime Love Affair : THE HIDING ROOM, by Jonathan Wilson ; Viking; $22.95, 262 pages

August 31, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

History has its nodes where two just causes intersect and each becomes the other's unjust cause. "The Hiding Room," a love story shattered at one such intersection, begins in wartime Cairo in 1941.

The British were hard pressed by the advancing forces of Rommel, and Jewish refugees from Europe were trying to evade British controls to reach Palestine. The British were in a close-to-desperate position. The Suez Canal was their lifeline, and they were unwilling to risk Arab anger by letting the Jews through. They were, after all, fighting Hitler, and Zionists must respect the priority.

Until the war ended most did, despite the unhappy history of Jews relying on the decency of others for their safety. Some would not; and even during the war there were sporadic incidents that would afterward develop into full-scale underground warfare against the British authorities in Palestine. To further cloud the moralities, there was a legacy of pro-Arab, anti-Jewish inclinations among the British in the Middle East. How much relish went into the impeccable if presumably regrettable case for a strong line against Zionist extremists?

History is a stew, and so are the lives of people caught in it. Jonathan Wilson's novel traces with discriminating moral lucidity the consequences of the passion that erupts between Rawlins, a young British intelligence officer in Cairo, and Esta, a Zionist refugee.

The same clarity is used with two characters who are more complex and perhaps more interesting. One is Col. Graham, the counterintelligence officer who investigates the relationship after a Zionist cell has assassinated a British diplomat. The other is Rabbi Mendoza, the military chaplain whose tense pride in being both British and Jewish turns into painful internal civil war.

Rawlins, unfledged, devoted to home, country and his English girlfriend, belongs to a unit that keeps an eye on Jewish refugees and refers to them disparagingly as Shylocks and Jessicas . Then Esta, dark and intense, comes in with a detailed account of Nazi atrocities in her Polish town and demands that he pass it on to the British authorities. He is skeptical but entranced and they become lovers.

Not only does Esta's mix of passion, anger and suffering ignite him; it wrenches him out of his cool national character and beliefs. He will plead her cause to his superiors; when they prove not only indifferent but suspicious, he deserts and smuggles her through army lines to a kibbutz outside Jerusalem.

He has not gone from one side to the other. He rejects the cold pragmatism of his countrymen but he cannot accept the lethal extremes of Esta's friends. Standing in the no-man's land between opposing historical certainties, he suffers a no-man's lander's fate: shot by a Jewish terrorist who suspects him to be a spy. Esta, who passion likewise transforms into a no-man's lander, will give birth to Rawlins' child and emigrate to England after the war.

There is much that is labored and unsatisfying about Wilson's novel. The device of a framing narrative--Esta's son brings her body to Jerusalem to be buried, as she had requested, and to try to find out who his father was: She had never told him--serves no useful purpose. On the contrary, it reinforces the story's tendency to artificial effects, particularly since the son's voice is priggish and stiff.

Wilson does not manage to suggest the personal and sexual passion between Rawlins and Esta, though he tries, with results that are sometimes embarrassingly inept. What he does convey is a spiritual and metaphysical passion; and it is here that the book's power lies. Rawlins' story is more of a pilgrimage than an affair; he is moved as a Graham Greene character is moved--a Scobie, say, or the honorary consul--into a tragic transfiguration.

Another pilgrimage is that of the rabbi, Mendoza. When Rawlins first seeks his help in getting Esta out of Cairo, Mendoza resists this appeal to the portion of his split loyalties--British and Jewish--that he has tried to suppress. Eventually he will suffer disgrace and arrest for helping the couple to escape. Rawlins uses the chaplain's automobile to cross the army lines.

The book's sole bit of comedy--quite a fine one--comes as Rawlins is treated with patronizing deference as "Rabbi" by British officers along the way; and a Jewish private besieges him with the complaint that he gets no kosher food.

Mendoza, whose complexity make him the book's most interesting character, is an oddly successful equivalent of Greene's whiskey priest in "The Power & the Glory" (Viking Penguin, 1977). Col. Graham, though treated more briefly as Rawlins' and Mendoza's interrogator, is a pungent blend of ruthlessness and sympathy. He too could be a Greene character.

Which is not to signal a weakness in "The Hiding Room" but rather its impressive strength. Wilson does not imitate Greene; in his own distinctive terms, though in a more labored and less artful fashion, he continues him.

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