The Way Back

Jon­nie Schnytzer

  • Review
By – March 18, 2019

This idio­syn­crat­ic nov­el, a splen­did rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Israel’s dark side set against its glo­ri­fi­ca­tion by advo­cates, excels in char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. Schnytzer pen­e­trates the inte­ri­or world of his prin­ci­pal fig­ures, expos­ing their strengths, weak­ness­es, goals, and fears. We meet suc­cess­ful gov­ern­ment lead­ers and aspir­ing can­di­dates for the high­est offices. We enter the shad­owy world of Mossad oper­a­tives and the work-a-day drudgery and ambi­tions of an aging vet­er­an police inspec­tor, Moshe Biton. We meet a fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ure just released from prison, David Hart­bach­er (“tough guy”), and learn of the lin­eage that has con­tributed to his present iden­ti­ty as an Israeli vig­i­lante, and his involve­ment with the kid­napped son of a senior Mossad agent.

We meet the dis­graced and some­what dis­grace­ful Limor Schwartz as she tries to claw her way back to her for­mer posi­tion as a senior Mossad oper­a­tive, using all the skills and tools at her dis­pos­al. We explore a soci­ety that has a bifur­cat­ed iden­ti­ty, cap­tured some­what by the slo­gan It’s time to replace Zion­ism with Judaism.” Under the pres­sures of Israel’s sit­u­a­tion, many of the char­ac­ters are at war with themselves.

We encounter, along with the Israeli char­ac­ters, a host of Arab peo­ple respond­ing to the Pales­tin­ian sit­u­a­tion. We vis­it Cairo, Beng­hazi, the Israeli cap­i­tals, and many oth­er vivid­ly drawn loca­tions. We meet ter­ror­ist lead­ers, their under­lings, and their vic­tims. We learn how mem­bers of the ene­my camps are recruit­ed to serve a new con­troller and devel­op a new, if vul­ner­a­ble, allegiance.

The sym­bol­ic cen­ter of this all is a tall fel­low liv­ing in appar­ent pover­ty, cou­pled with seem­ing men­tal and emo­tion­al dis­ar­ray. He has a child­like nature and inhab­its a twi­light zone. He los­es track, some­times, of who he is and what he should be doing. Known to read­ers through most of the book as Zahid, this Libyan-born man first named Tzion had for a long time buried his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to serve as an agent charged with var­i­ous mis­sions by a pow­er­ful and feared Arab leader. When his iden­ti­ty begins to dis­in­te­grate, he states the real­iza­tion that I am no longer Tzion. I haven’t been Tzion for years. I am no longer even Zahid. He too died years ago.” The scenes in which Schnytzer details this unsta­ble per­son­age are among the most com­pelling in the novel.

Like Zahid, the entire nov­el suf­fers from a shaky and shift­ing iden­ti­ty; it cries for tighter cohe­sion. Read­ers would have ben­e­fit­ed from more mark­ers of time and place, and a for­mal cast of char­ac­ters. But per­haps Schnytzer risks dis­ori­ent­ing read­ers in order to be true to the world he por­trays so brilliantly.

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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