In this 16th of his diverse novels, Stewart O’Nan produces a work in the exotic historic mode of Graham Greene, with the drier and grittier tone of Raymond Chandler. Greene’s books are evident models. In this novel, the decent-but-tired-man in cynical times recalls Thomas Fowler in “The Quiet American,” while in atmosphere the Jerusalem of 1945 closely parallels that of postwar Vienna in “The Third Man.”
A young Latvian Jew, with the seemingly un-Baltic name of Brand, drives a taxi in the ancient city in the waning days of Britain’s temporary rule over Palestine. A survivor of a German death camp and later internment by the Russians, he had managed to sign on as a seaman on a freighter and eventually sneak into Jerusalem. As the price of survival there, he has joined a cell of Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group fighting the British authority, which is blocking Jewish immigration. Haganah provides the car and job, as well as an introduction to Eva, a Lithuanian refugee who is part of the cell and becomes Brand’s lover. The group is led by a shadowy figure of uncertain nationality named Asher.
The cell carries out tactical missions — blowing up a bridge and a power line, then ambushing a train carrying a British Army payroll. Tension between Haganah and the Irgun, a more fanatical faction of the Jewish underground, forms a background to the story, culminating in the historical Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel, headquarters of the British administration.
The heart of the tale is Brand’s intensifying love for Eva and its implications for his decisions. Posing (apparently) as a prostitute, she has assignations with administration officials to gain intelligence, and Brand steels himself to drive her to these meetings. His feeling for her is mixed with guilt at his own survival of the war (the only member of his family to do so) and with memories of his reluctance to take risks to protect anyone’s life in the camps. He is decent and conscientious, if morally weathered and mostly apolitical. So it’s hard for him to act as a committed member of this group, all sworn to obey orders without question. He argues with Eva when a member of the cell has his throat cut (and tongue cut out) over suspicion that he has betrayed the cell.
“ ‘What if they were wrong?’ Brand asked.
‘If they were wrong, they’d be forgiven.’
‘So killing was no longer a sin?’
‘Not in the cause of freedom. He was being impossible. He wanted a revolution without bloodshed.’
‘No, he wanted a revolution that was just.’
‘Just. What did they do with
informers in Latvia? In the camps?’ ”
It becomes somewhat clear (though the noirish fog never lifts entirely) that Asher is not altogether the selfless Jewish patriot. He has a native ruthlessness and possibly mixed motivations, which come into play in the hotel bombing, in which 91 were killed. Brand is kept in the dark about it, and the deaths strain his commitment to the movement.
As in any good mystery, the third-person narrator knows more than he lets on; much is hinted and suggested, little is spelled out. The style is spare but pictorial. O’Nan’s historical and topographical research is impressive — the streets, monuments, city gates, even the swallows and the desert wind, the khamsin, are meticulously named.
It’s a fine piece of storytelling. I have to say, however, that I did not fully buy Brand as a young Latvian. There is nothing of Latvia here. All the many movies and actors mentioned are American — Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Ingrid Bergman, Veronica Lake — as is the music on the radio: Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday. Brand drinks Johnnie Walker scotch and puts “gas” in his car. It is clear that O’Nan worked harder at creating a convincing Jerusalem than a convincing Latvian.
To many, this might be a minor point. And by no means does it spoil the book; the Latvian origin is not central to the story. The moral struggle in “City of Secrets” is timeless and international. In the book as in the real world, it is never resolved.
CITY OF SECRETS
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 194 pp., $22David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.