Jerusalem has been called many things. “City of Secrets” probably not until that is Stewart O’Nan chose that title for his 2016 novel of the tumultuous years in the “Holy Land” after the end of the Second World War.
The title implies the story is about the city of Jerusalem, which to a large extent it is, but it’s primarily about one member of a group of people campaigning to get Great Britain to fulfill its 1917 promise that the land west of the Jordan River become a homeland for the Jewish people.
O’Nan assigns his protagonist the single un-Jewish name “Brand.” Brand is a Holocaust survivor who makes his way through the blockade set up by the British to prevent Jewish refugees from the Holocaust from reaching the Holy Land beyond the small annual quota.
Having made it through the blockade, Brand is beholden to a resistance cell associated with the Haganah, the largest of the three Jewish paramilitary units organized to harass the British into fulfilling its vow. The cell’s leader gives Brand a new name––Jossi––along with an old Peugeot which he uses to support himself as a taxi driver. The other reason he is given the car is to drive the resistance cell to actions against the British.
Despite the accolades by Alan Furst, Geraldine Brooks, and Chris Pavone, this reader found City of Secrets to be an odd book. O’Nan clearly did a large amount of research in an effort to accurately portray the life and events taking place in Jerusalem at this time.
He describes the streets and buildings of 1946 Jerusalem as if he’d been there himself during those years. He also describes the complex political environment, focusing on the conflict between the British and Jews who were desperate to bring the refugees of the Holocaust to the Promised Land. The role of the Arabs is downplayed. I’ll give him a pass on that. This is a novel, not a history book. But does the story ring true?
There’s the rub. City of Secrets is a character study––the story of a survivor who is trying to establish a new life in a time and place of complex conflicts. He is driven by a desire to honor his family members who didn’t survive the Holocaust and to overcome the guilt that haunts him. Making that difficult are the circumstances on the ground––his being part of an underground cell that is not above using violence to win a civil war.
The Jews living in the Holy Land that time had few choices. In their minds driving the British out of the land and establishing a nation state was not just a political goal. It was seen as a matter of survival for the Jewish people. Accused of having succumbed to the Nazi slaughter without resisting––a false generalization, but yet one that stung––the Jews living in the Holy Land could see no alternative but to use extra-legal means to make life miserable for the British––a tactic that eventually worked. The British threw up their hands and left.
In the end, Brand rejects the price he is being asked to pay to be part of the movement for the establishment of a Jewish state. He leaves. It’s a plausible outcome, but it’s one man’s story and it misses the larger story of the courage and resourcefulness of the effort that eventually resulted in success––a 1947 resolution at the United Nations authorizing the establishment of a Jewish state and in May 1948, the declaration in Tel Aviv of the formation of that state.
Why city of “secrets”? Is it because the people who were part of the paramilitary units had to hide their activity? Then shouldn’t the title have been “People of Secrets”?
I’m not conversant with Stewart O’Nan’s seventeen novels and therefore can’t say how City of Secrets fits into his body of work. I gave his first novel, Snow Angels, 4 stars on Goodreads. He writes exceedingly well. If his theme is individuals who survive in impossible circumstances, then City of Secrets fits in. Writing about a complex time and place when you may not have personal experience to back it up, however, can be problematic. I applaud O’Nan’s willingness to tackle the topic even while I have questions about his approach.