The Red Balcony

  • Review
By – February 13, 2023

Author of eight books, includ­ing the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed his­tor­i­cal romances The Hid­ing Room and A Pales­tine Affair, Jonathan Wil­son pos­sess­es a keen under­stand­ing of the fraught pol­i­tics of British Man­date Pales­tine. His knowl­edge is put to exem­plary use in this lean novel’s por­tray­al of the legal com­plex­i­ties sur­round­ing the 1933 mur­der of Haim Arloso­roff, one of the most con­tro­ver­sial fig­ures of the era. The Arloso­roff case is so laden with his­tor­i­cal ambi­gu­i­ties, in fact, that it’s sur­pris­ing that no writer before Wil­son was inspired to fic­tion­al­ize it.

Arlosoroff’s work as a leader of the Labor Zion­ist move­ment enabled Jews of Ger­many to immi­grate and trans­fer some of their goods to Pales­tine. As a result, he was furi­ous­ly accused of col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Nazis, and the whole affair was per­haps a fac­tor in his mur­der, which remains unsolved to this day.

Arlosoroff’s appar­ent assas­si­na­tion pro­duced shock­waves in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties around the world. They were hor­ri­fied by the notion that a Jew could mur­der anoth­er Jew for polit­i­cal rea­sons, as was wide­ly believed at the time. There were var­i­ous sus­pects, both Arabs and Jews, but even­tu­al­ly all were acquit­ted due to a lack of cor­rob­o­rat­ing evi­dence. That’s where The Red Bal­cony comes in. A taut and fast-paced book, it presents a brac­ing­ly intel­li­gent, moral­ly imag­i­na­tive homage to a time and place that is already reced­ing from liv­ing memory. 

The novel’s cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist, Ivor Cas­tle, is a fig­ure not unfa­mil­iar to read­ers of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture: caught between two iden­ti­ties, roman­ti­cal­ly naïve, and increas­ing­ly uncer­tain of his loy­al­ties and sense of belong­ing. Jew­ish and Oxford-edu­cat­ed, Cas­tle has been sent from Eng­land to serve as assis­tant to the defense coun­sel that is rep­re­sent­ing the men who have been accused of Arlosoroff’s mur­der. He soon finds him­self out of his depth, a pawn in oth­ers’ game. On top of that, he becomes pro­fes­sion­al­ly com­pro­mised when he embarks on a tor­rid love affair with a seduc­tive artist named Tsiona, the novel’s femme fatale who keeps the hero won­der­ing at her motives. As he inves­ti­gates the con­tra­dic­to­ry details of a con­fes­sion to the crime — and its sub­se­quent retrac­tion — Cas­tle finds him­self fac­ing decep­tions at every turn, from intra-Jew­ish ten­sions over how to address the cri­sis of Jews in Ger­many to oppo­si­tion to the British Mandate.

Wil­son ren­ders both the protagonist’s long­ing for Tsiona and his mount­ing frus­tra­tion with the case with exquis­ite pre­ci­sion, con­vey­ing Castle’s roman­tic and polit­i­cal naïvety as he is swal­lowed up by events beyond his con­trol. Yet as he strug­gles to make sense of his bewil­der­ing new envi­ron­ment, he begins to under­stand that his encounter with the new Jew­ish soci­ety might yet prove self-lib­er­at­ing. Ivor’s ini­tial impres­sions of Tel Aviv had been of an unreg­u­lat­ed place, free from its moor­ings,” Wil­son writes. It wasn’t only the float­ing eclec­ti­cism of the archi­tec­ture — the hous­es fre­quent­ly had no num­bers, women smoked in pub­lic or wore bathing suits on the bus, all bour­geois inhi­bi­tions swept away. In Eng­land he had been closed in by taboo, a suf­fo­cat­ing mix of British reserve and Anglo-Jew­ish restraint. Here he was free, the mud­dle of his iden­ti­ty of a piece with the town itself.” Notwith­stand­ing his bud­ding con­fi­dence, Castle’s dogged inquiries lead him into hair-rais­ing exploits, includ­ing an Arab upris­ing. If his sojourn in Pales­tine sets in motion an essen­tial process of self-dis­cov­ery, it also comes with painful con­se­quences. And, to his cred­it, Wil­son pulls off a star­tling denoue­ment that few read­ers will see coming.

Through­out the nov­el, Wil­son dis­plays a great deal of empa­thy for his char­ac­ters. He includes arrest­ing, some­times shock­ing imagery, such as a black swasti­ka snap­ping smart­ly in the breeze, high above Jerusalem — remind­ing us that this is, after all, 1933. Between its near-painter­ly descrip­tions of the ver­dant Pales­tin­ian land­scape, and its live­ly por­tray­als of Tel Aviv cafes and Jerusalem neigh­bor­hoods, Wilson’s prose is brim­ming with his­tor­i­cal verisimil­i­tude, intrigu­ing rev­e­la­tions, and immer­sive detail. The result is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing lit­er­ary por­tray­als of the pre-state Yishuv ever written.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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