Pre-State Jerusalem is the setting for this short novel about the members of a Haganah cell staging evermore daring raids against British Mandate forces. Protagonist Brand is a Latvian Jew who survived the death camps in Europe but not the nightmares that followed. Having arrived on the shores of Palestine on a Maltese freighter, Brand now works in Jerusalem as a taxi driver with papers provided by the Jewish underground.
In City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan (Viking, April 2016), Jerusalem is colorfully described as a “puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.” In the rainy season, the city’s “walls were gray instead of golden, the souks teeming with rats.” The winter “rain fell on the domes and bell towers and minarets, filling the ancient cisterns beneath the Old City, fell on Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives and the desert beyond, thunder cracking over the Dead Sea.”
The author has clearly done his homework. Post World War II Jerusalem comes alive as Brand drives his taxi towards the British roadblock at Zion Gate, and as he transports illegal firearms and wounded underground members. At night Brand shares a bed with Eva, a much older widow who frequents the hotel rooms of diplomats as a way of gathering information for their Haganah cell.
Brand is apparently not trusted enough to know the real names or the planned actions of the underground. After participating in an attack on an electricity substation, Brand feels the mission was “both heroic and foolhardy, but mainly disorganized,” yet “crazily, he wanted to do it again.” He gets his chance when he joins his compatriots in an attack on a train carrying the payroll for British troops. Most of the time, however, Brand is kept on the sidelines. The novel deals primarily with Brand’s state of mind instead of centering on the Haganah operations.
For those familiar with the history of underground resistance against the British, the clues pointing to the book’s finale are hard to miss. “While the rest of the [King David] hotel was open to the public, the Mandate rented the entire south wing for its more sensitive offices. An obvious target, the Secretariat had a separate entrance ringed by barbed wire.”
The Haganah, Brand realizes, has abandoned its policy of self-restraint to join with the Irgun and the Stern Gang and the explosive attack on the hotel is inevitable. Brand doesn’t “understand how they were all one now, only that he was part of them.”
City of Secrets, although short on historical background and context, offers readers a brief, but compelling glimpse into Mandate Jerusalem and into the troubled minds and souls of those who fought for the establishment of a Jewish State.
Stewart O’Nan is the author of fifteen previous novels as well as several works of nonfiction, including, with Stephen King, the bestselling Faithful. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a national bestseller and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh where he lives with his family.