City of Secrets

Stew­art ONan
  • Review
By – July 5, 2016

City of Secrets is a bril­liant­ly imag­ined vision of tur­moil in 1945 Jerusalem. A Jew­ish Lat­vian man who sur­vived the Rus­sians, the Nazis, and then the Rus­sians again has made his way to Pales­tine, going by the name of Brand. Like many with whom he asso­ciates, Brand’s life­line is a pass­able iden­ti­ty doc­u­ment. If he is found by any Man­date offi­cial — or betrayed by those with whom he is shak­i­ly allied — Brand can read­i­ly be turned over to the British Man­date author­i­ties. His life, like theirs, is a web of secrets.

Brand finds him­self indebt­ed to and ded­i­cat­ed to the Zion­ist rev­o­lu­tion, and thus against most poli­cies of the Man­date. He is part of a cell that uses vio­lence to under­mine the Man­date and bring about the Jew­ish State. At this time, the Irgun and the Haganah are work­ing togeth­er rather than fight­ing each oth­er. The mem­bers of the cell live in world that blends loy­al­ty and sus­pi­cion in an explo­sive for­mu­la. Few know all of the ele­ments of any planned action, and the stat­ed plans are often dis­guis­ing the real ones for secu­ri­ty pur­pos­es. No one is ful­ly trust­ed: no one is con­sid­ered above crack­ing under tor­ture. Under­cov­er as an inde­pen­dent taxi dri­ver, Brand may find him­self ordered to pick up an accom­plice at a cer­tain loca­tion, but find anoth­er cell mem­ber there instead, per­haps with new orders to pick up some­one else at anoth­er loca­tion. The secu­ri­ty arrange­ments assure con­fu­sion and frustration.

They also frus­trate rela­tion­ships: Brand is in love with a woman work­ing under­cov­er for the rev­o­lu­tion. She is capa­ble and coura­geous, and she cares for Brand, but her loy­al­ty — like his — is to the move­ment. His guilt brings painful dreams of Eva, his deceased wife. O’Nan bril­liant­ly presents those dreams and visions, reveal­ing a man haunt­ed by his con­cen­tra­tion camp expe­ri­ences and losses.

With Brand and his Peu­geot on the move, we see the var­i­ous neigh­bor­hoods as they were then. Some of the novel’s best scenes take us along on the cell’s ter­ror­ist plots and the imme­di­ate after­math of crum­bling build­ings, sev­ered limbs, and snuffed-out lives.

Per­haps the novel’s most mov­ing scene is that of Brand’s lone­ly Passover seder. In his tiny, shab­by liv­ing quar­ters, he solemn­ly pre­pares for what he nev­er ful­ly knew. Thanks to the black­outs, he had can­dles.” He places then in two emp­ty beer bot­tles, pro­vides a glass for Eli­jah, pours some wine, sets out the rit­u­al food items, and decides that he was the child who did not know how to ask.” He per­forms the rit­u­al ges­tures. A flood of child­hood mem­o­ries, seders long past, hum­ble him: He wished he were a bet­ter Jew. This was a start.” A start, in its own way, as mean­ing­ful as Brand’s work for the rev­o­lu­tion. But is the life he is lead­ing, a life he has cho­sen, cer­tain­ly bet­ter than the life he led as pris­on­er of the Nazis and the Russians?

Stew­art O’Nan con­jures a prop­er­ly detailed por­trait of post­war Jerusalem that is graph­i­cal­ly detailed and atmos­pher­i­cal­ly evoca­tive. O’Nan’s terse, razor sharp nov­el, filled with polit­i­cal intrigue and a fas­ci­nat­ing gallery of under­ground char­ac­ters, illu­mi­nates a past that reveals much about Jerusalem and the rest of the Mid­dle East of today.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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