There is a problem in reading this book some 53 years after it was published. There have been events. History has moved on. Back then, Israel still benefitted from the wave of sympathy generated by the Holocaust. That is no longer the case. It ceased being the case during the 1970s, as Israel behaved with increasing brutality. It ceased being the case with the massacres at Sabra and Chatila. It ceased being the case during the Intifada.
But back in 1965, Israel was still regarded as a victim. Certainly, the survivors of the Holocaust had been victims as was proved conclusively at the Eichmann Trial which is the event that gives this book its connection to history. But I, at least, cannot re-read this book without the knowledge of hindsight. That is part of the problem.
The other is a problem that I hope that I had at the time. The central characters re not very likeable. Freddy, in the unlikely circumstances that he was still alive today, would probably be a Faragista. His view of the Common Market is summed up in one phrase: What is the point in living so close to foreigners, if we are going to allow them to put us out of business? This comes from someone who has not done a stroke of productive work in his life. Freddy also has a domineering mother in Harrogate who manages to interfere in his life although he is over a thousand miles away. Barbara is the Muriel Spark figure. She is a half-Jewish Catholic convert seeking permission from the Vatican to marry Harry Clegg, a divorced archaeologist, working on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Her friend, Ricky, Miss Rickward, is seeking to thwart her in this for purely selfish reasons (he is working class and therefore below Barbara). Then there are the Gardnors, Rupert and Ruth. Rupert is a colleague of Freddy in the diplomatic service in Israel and Ruth is his virulently anti-Semitic wife. Basically, what we have is a group of upper middle-class Englishmen and women, brought up before the war and appalled by the Welfare State. They make Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells look moderate.
What is surprising about a book set in Israel is that there are only two Israelis – Saul Ephraim and Mendel – in the book, and neither of them are really significant characters. There are also Barbara’s fully Jewish relatives, the Aaronsons, but they are only there to establish that she is half-Jewish and therefore in danger if she goes to Jordan as a pilgrim, which of course, in her arrogance, she does.
There are considerably more Palestinians in the book – the Ramdez family, Alexandros and others. There are also a number of priests and nuns, who make what can only be described as cameo appearances.
So, what is the book about? It is about Barbara and her wish to visit the Christian shrines of the Holy Land, regardless of which side of the border they are on and regardless of the difficulties that this will cause because she is Jewish on her mother’s side. The relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan) was one of undeclared war. The British, having suffered the ignominy of Suez, were paranoid about President Nasser and Egypt. So Barbara disguising herself in a hijab and crossing the border at the Mandelbaum Gate causes a great deal of trouble to Freddy and his upper-crust colleagues.
This is also a spy story, but more in the John Le Carre than the Ian Fleming mould. Various people are involved in various nefarious activities and it all begins to unfold because of Barbara and because Freddy tries to help her. You expect someone to come to a sticky end, but it is not who you think nor where you expect it to happen.
This is a novel of its time. It does not really deal with the Israel-Palestine situation, neither as it was then nor how it may have developed. It is more about the British negotiating their way around the crafty natives It is like George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”
It is also an astonishing tour de force.