Fic­tion

World Shad­ow

  • Review
By – September 12, 2022

Author of five inter­na­tion­al­ly acclaimed nov­els and recip­i­ent of the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture, Nir Baram has writ­ten his most ambi­tious fic­tion yet, a mag­is­te­r­i­al effort to chart the vis­i­ble and not-so-vis­i­ble forces act­ing on our times. Hav­ing grown up in Jerusalem in one of Israel’s famous polit­i­cal fam­i­lies (both his grand­fa­ther and father were Labor Par­ty gov­ern­ment min­is­ters), Baram knows the ins and outs of both Israeli and inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics and intrigue. In World Shad­ow, he wields that impres­sive knowl­edge — the his­to­ries, pol­i­tics, and vio­lent con­flicts of a stag­ger­ing num­ber of locales — to daz­zling effect. From the under­world of Lon­don dis­si­dents to the bru­tal­i­ties of war-torn Con­go, to polit­i­cal cam­paigns in Wash­ing­ton DC, Tel Aviv, and Bolivia, this bold nov­el rais­es unset­tling eth­i­cal ques­tions and offers a grip­ping cri­tique of the late-cap­i­tal­ist world, with all its con­comi­tant pas­sions and con­flicts. Giv­en that Baram is that rare nov­el­ist capa­ble of cap­tur­ing the inti­ma­cies of fam­i­ly love and friend­ship as well as glob­al intrigue, World Shad­ow is woven with great sophis­ti­ca­tion and surprise.

For years, Baram has been inter­est­ed in the trans­for­ma­tions of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, and this nov­el is the tri­umphant cul­mi­na­tion of his immer­sion in many polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic spheres. As he once told a reporter, he is curi­ous about the type of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism that emerged begin­ning in the 1980s, in the days of Rea­gan and Thatch­er, and is still with us today, and main­ly about the ver­ti­go it caus­es. In oth­er words, about the encounter between ethics, maybe even the spir­it, of the indi­vid­ual and the will of the pow­ers, the sys­tems, the cor­po­ra­tions we encounter when we go out into the world.” Cap­tur­ing such ver­ti­go with excep­tion­al nar­ra­tive and cul­tur­al insight, World Shad­ow brings sev­er­al piv­otal play­ers into sharp focus: a deeply dis­en­chant­ed and vio­lent­ly anar­chic group that dreams of dis­man­tling the cur­rent pre­vail­ing order through a world­wide strike of a bil­lion peo­ple; an influ­en­tial Amer­i­can con­sult­ing firm; an ambi­tious Jerusalemite Gavriel Man­sour, who com­pre­hends less and less the more pow­er­ful he becomes; and the Amer­i­can Daniel Kay, who turns against the con­ven­tion­al pieties of West­ern cam­paigns and pol­i­tics to which he’s been long devot­ed. With these char­ac­ters, Baram sug­gests that many peo­ple and enti­ties wear lib­er­al masks that hide unsa­vory actions and consequences.

As these inter­ests and per­son­al­i­ties clash, the nov­el moves between the 1990s and our present moment — and between lit­er­ary gen­res and styles. To his last­ing cred­it, each of the novel’s voic­es speaks with per­sua­sive force and con­vic­tion, such that, at one point or anoth­er, every read­er will like­ly find their world­views chal­lenged. As one of the novel’s unhap­pi­ly enlight­ened char­ac­ters mus­es: Every cam­paign involved black mon­ey, in cash, and lots of it: anony­mous donors, straw com­pa­nies, for­eign gov­ern­ments, non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions with inspi­ra­tional names. It was nev­er entire­ly clear who you were work­ing for, but it was not just the can­di­date, and the can­di­date served var­i­ous clan­des­tine enti­ties, some of whom he did not know and would nev­er want to. The real­i­ty is that no can­di­date, any­where in the world, has a true under­stand­ing of the array of pow­ers behind him.”

World Shad­ow touch­es on the burn­ing truths of our time. It is a thor­ough­ly dis­qui­et­ing med­i­ta­tion on the roots of vio­lence and the fad­ing embers of democ­ra­cy. Brim­ming with wrench­ing ironies and rev­e­la­tions about the treach­ery, cyn­i­cism, and cor­rup­tion behind the forces that rule us all, this is a nov­el that the late John le Car­ré would sure­ly have appreciated.

Read­ers with sta­mi­na for intri­cate, world-build­ing nov­els (think Pyn­chon or DeLil­lo) will find numer­ous rewards here. Thought-pro­vok­ing and melan­cholic, World Shad­ow resists clear con­clu­sions but tri­umphs as an indeli­ble por­trait of our tur­bu­lent, unhap­py age. Award-win­ning trans­la­tor Jes­si­ca Cohen does a stel­lar job, tack­ling the novel’s mul­ti­far­i­ous voic­es and nuances so art­ful­ly it is sur­pris­ing­ly easy to for­get that the nov­el was not writ­ten in English.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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