City of the Sun

By – March 13, 2014

It is 1941 and a Ger­man Jew­ish sci­en­tist, along with his sis­ter and father, is being tem­porar­i­ly housed by a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the sub­urbs of Cairo. The physi­cist, Erik Blu­men­thal, has unknow­ing­ly fled from the fry­ing pan into the fire. He might be Jew­ish, but the Ger­mans, believ­ing that his knowl­edge will assist them in cre­at­ing the first atom bomb, want him back. The Amer­i­cans, who are pur­su­ing the same end, are also eager to locate him.

Hein­rich Kesner is a ruth­less Ger­man spy who believes that locat­ing Blu­men­thal is the key to his future. Work­ing for the Amer­i­cans is an unlike­ly can­di­date. Jour­nal­ist Mick­ey Con­nol­ly is asked by the Amer­i­can Ambas­sador to infil­trate the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty by pre­tend­ing to be writ­ing a piece on the Jews of Egypt. His real goal is to find Erik Blu­men­thal. In a strange twist of fate, Eric’s sis­ter, Maya, hap­pens to meet Mick­ey Con­nol­ly on one of her jaunts into Cairo. As his is a secret assign­ment and she is using an assumed name, nei­ther is aware of the con­nec­tion and a rela­tion­ship slow­ly develops.

The sights and scents of Cairo pro­vide a tan­ta­liz­ing back­ground to the dra­ma and there is plen­ty of that, along with some odd moments that make it clear just how con­vo­lut­ed pol­i­tics can become dur­ing times of war. Hein­rich Kesner attempts to bring togeth­er the head of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and a young Anwar Sadat. Although Sheik Hasan al-Banna’s goal is to turn the coun­try into a theoc­ra­cy serv­ing Allah and Sadat’s is to cre­ate a repub­lic that serves the peo­ple, it is Kesner’s job to con­vince them to work togeth­er to over­throw the British and make way for the Ger­mans. Mean­while, the young play­boy King Farouk arrives at a ben­e­fit he is throw­ing for B’nai B’rith in a red Mer­cedes that Hitler pre­sent­ed him as a gift.

As both sides get clos­er to locat­ing Erik Blu­men­thal, the action heats up, lives are lost, and the out­come is uncer­tain until the very end of this enter­tain­ing, infor­ma­tive, and some­times heart­break­ing novel.

Nao­mi Tropp recent­ly retired after a long career in non­prof­it man­age­ment. She worked on the Ann Katz Fes­ti­val of Books at the Indi­anapo­lis JCC for 9 of its twelve years and direct­ed the fes­ti­val for three of those years.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Juliana Maio

  • One of the main themes in City of the Sun is the issue of iden­ti­ty (in the con­text of coun­try, reli­gion, and fam­i­ly). In Chap­ter 25, Maio writes that upon hear­ing the Egypt­ian peo­ple raise a toast to their coun­try, Maya felt a lump in her throat as she was remind­ed that she her­self belonged nowhere.” Joe Levi lat­er says of his fam­i­ly Our reli­gion is Judaism, but our cit­i­zen­ship is French, and our home­land is Egypt.” In what ways does the issue of iden­ti­ty man­i­fest itself through­out the book, and what oth­er char­ac­ters strug­gle with it?

  • The author points to dif­fer­ences, both real and per­ceived, between Ashke­naz­im and Sephardim. Does she show any pref­er­ence for one of these groups over the oth­er? Were you aware of any dif­fer­ences between Jew­ish sub­cul­tures before read­ing the book?

  • Of Maya Blu­men­thal, the author writes: She loved the sun and had always felt a pow­er­ful kin­ship with it, rev­el­ing in its warm glow and heal­ing rays. She would drink it in, believ­ing God was caress­ing her and fill­ing her body with light. Per­haps this was so, for peo­ple often said she gave off sun­light when she smiled — at least that’s what they used to say.” Dis­cuss the one of the themes of the novel.

  • Two of the key female char­ac­ters in the nov­el are Maya Blu­men­thal and Dorothy Cal­ley, the Amer­i­can sec­re­tary to the U.S. Ambas­sador in Egypt. Maya is intel­li­gent but secre­tive, an often over­whelmed refugee try­ing to pro­tect her fam­i­ly; Dorothy is a seem­ing­ly strong, fierce­ly inde­pen­dent woman in a posi­tion of some author­i­ty. Which of these two women do you think the author iden­ti­fies with? Does Maya sur­prise you with any of her actions or decisions?

  • Anwar Sadat, who plays a piv­otal role in City of the Sun, lat­er became pres­i­dent of Egypt and signed a his­toric peace agree­ment with Israel (for which he was assas­si­nat­ed). Do his actions in the nov­el fore­shad­ow his even­tu­al will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise with Israel?

  • Through­out the nov­el, Maya is torn between her desire for inde­pen­dence and her oblig­a­tions toward her fam­i­ly. Does this inner con­flict make her more or less relat­able as a character?

  • In what ways does the mutu­al­ly grow­ing attrac­tion between Maya and Mick­ey Con­nol­ly help or harm Mickey’s mis­sion to bring Erik Blu­men­thal over to the Amer­i­can side? What is the like­ly future of the rela­tion­ship between Mick­ey and Maya?

  • Maya’s father chas­tis­es Joe Levi for not tak­ing Jew­ish cus­toms seri­ous­ly, and for lax­i­ty in the Jew­ish edu­ca­tion of his chil­dren. Is this a fair crit­i­cism? Why or why not?

  • Do you find Alle­gra Levi to be a sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter? What do you think is the rea­son for the emo­tion­al dis­tance she dis­plays toward the Blu­men­thal family?

  • Which of the main his­tor­i­cal event(s) in the book fore­shad­ow the shap­ing of mod­ern Egypt and the Mid­dle East? Giv­en the state of Egypt and the rest of the Mid­dle East today, are you sur­prised by the Cairo that the author depicts? Why do you think that so many of the Egypt­ian peo­ple were will­ing to trust Hitler’s Nazi gov­ern­ment over the British dur­ing this stage of the war?

  • In 1952, King Farouk was dethroned and kicked out of the coun­try by the Egypt­ian mil­i­tary, includ­ing Anwar Sadat. Do the polit­i­cal pres­sures Farouk faces dur­ing the war as depict­ed in the nov­el sug­gest this out­come for the king? Do you think the king’s lifestyle and actions may have con­tributed to his downfall?

  • How did Zion­ism affect the Jews liv­ing in Egypt in 1941? How do you think it affect­ed them after the cre­ation of the State of Israel in 1948?

  • The Mus­lim Broth­er­hood would go on to pave the way for Al Qae­da and oth­er Islam­ic ter­ror­ist groups. In what ways do the group’s actions in the nov­el pre­dict this eventuality?

  • Do Ambas­sador Kirk and the oth­er Amer­i­can author­i­ties seem to have gen­uine con­cern for the well-being of Erik Blu­men­thal, or do they just see him as some­one who can help them achieve their own goals?

  • Hein­rich Kesner proves to be a for­mi­da­ble oppo­nent for our heroes. Which of Kesner’s actions demon­strate his cun­ning? What are his biggest mistakes?

  • Are you sur­prised by the choice Erik Blu­men­thal makes at the end of the nov­el? Do you sym­pa­thize with his deci­sion, and does it make sense giv­en his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion through­out the book? In what oth­er ways could the book have end­ed? Could any alter­nate end­ing be satisfying?