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BOOK REVIEW

'The Jerusalem File' by Joel Stone

Meditations on the politics of the Middle East -- and the human heart.

March 05, 2009|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

"The Jerusalem File" is styled as a neo-noir mystery story set in contemporary Jerusalem. From the first page, however, the book throws off reflections of its far deeper facets. Joel Stone (the now-deceased author of "A Town Called Jericho") uses his short and elegantly crafted thriller as the occasion for something much more ambitious -- a meditation on the politics of the modern Middle East and, at the same time, the more intimate politics of the human heart. In that sense, "The Jerusalem File" owes something to both Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer, a debt that Stone has repaid by writing a page-turner that provides the reader with something much more than a neat solution.

Stone finds it necessary to deploy only four principal characters to perform this feat. Levin, a newly retired Israeli security agent, is recruited by a mathematics professor named Kaye to put his wife, Deborah, and her suspected lover, an art historian named Weiss, under surveillance. Not much more can be disclosed about the plot of "The Jerusalem File" without giving too much away, but suffice it to say that readers are more likely to be entertained than shocked by the twists and turns that Stone has concocted.

The deeper mystery, in fact, is the one inside the detective himself. Levin lives in almost total isolation in a small Jerusalem apartment -- he is divorced from his wife, his grown children have gone abroad, his father is locked away in a nursing home in a state of dementia and his mother is caught in a kind of time warp between the stresses of the latest intifada and her memories as a survivor of the siege of Leningrad during World War II. His sole companions are a tank full of tropical fish, and they are dying off one by one. When we first encounter Levin, he is a man on the edge of a late-life crisis.

After a career spent in pursuit of Israel's most violent and determined enemies, Levin despairs at being reduced to the task of trailing an unfaithful wife: "From intelligence analyst he had gone to the gutters -- gone from being a secret eye to a private eye, by any measure a big step down."

But it also represents an act of self-redemption for a man who is bored, lonely and at risk. What else, after all, would fill his days if he were not on the prowl for evidence of Deborah's infidelity? Only an afternoon movie, a cup of coffee at a restaurant table and an "eye-twitching interest in pretty teenage girls."

"Shocking," Levin concedes. "But who didn't bathe in impulses they would never act upon?" As Levin conducts his shabby surveillance, we are permitted a glimpse of what life is like in a city under siege. Buses and bus stops are treacherous places, and sidewalk restaurant tables are "no man's land" -- the preferable seating is in the back. Watching out for suicide bombers has become "a Jewish national game," and the use of disguises makes it all the more challenging: "the bomb might be hiding in a Yeshiva student's briefcase, or strapped beneath the Hassidic's long coat, or under the benign Bedouin's robe."

Levin has come to conclude that his life's work as a security agent -- the elimination of the Arab threat to the Jewish state -- had been futile all along. "Their battle might go on forever, if the past meant anything, the holy Jews and the holy Arabs, laying claim to the same holy land," he muses. "This was a battle of the truest of Biblical proportions: the vastness of the stakes and the tinyness of the terrain." Whether the weapons are bombs or bulldozers, he concludes that Jerusalem is an open wound that could "never scab over, not with so many fingers picking at it, so many, over so long a time."

Remarkably, Levin is capable of empathy for the very men and women who were his sworn enemies throughout his career. He muses on how the Arabs must feel when earning their livings by taking menial jobs in Jewish neighborhoods. "If this enraged them, they couldn't show it, not there on the job," he reflects. "But their hearts must have leaped when one of their own hit back, pushed a button, exploded a bomb -- Levin knew they must, even if most recognized the horror. Sometimes it wasn't human not to be inhuman."

So deep is Levin's alienation that he regards the Christian fundamentalists who visit Israel on pilgrimage with somewhat greater sympathy than the fundamentalists of his own faith.

When a bomb goes off, Levin has noticed, Jews and Arabs "stayed apart, helping their own," but the Christian pilgrims "moved like angels among the frightened and afflicted, Jews and Arabs alike." Even so, he recognizes that they take pleasure in witnessing what they regard as the welcome signs of an approaching Armageddon.

"They didn't flinch from the maze of dust and chaos, or from getting blood all over their T-shirts," observes Levin. "He wondered if they would keep the bloody shirts as mementos of their trip."

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