The cover of this novel proclaims it is Israeli espionage in the tradition of John le Carré. This is more than publisher’s hype. Sarid does, like the great British spy writer, portray secret-service work as grubby and mundane interspersed with moments of violence, a world where the prevailing morality is grey. Most of all, it shares le Carré’s great theme of betrayal.
Sarid — a lawyer and journalist and the son of former government minister Yossi Sarid — paints a bleak picture of Israeli society, where the struggle for survival is used to justify the betrayal of friendships and personal ideals. The irony is that, in the process, Israel has betrayed its own founding principles.
The unnamed protagonist is an interrogator of terrorist suspects for the Shin Bet, using torture if he has to. During one session, he goes too far and a suspect chokes to death.
His next assignment is to pose as an aspiring writer to win the trust of Daphna, a once-promising novelist and a now disillusioned member of the liberal intelligentsia. She is an old friend of Hani, an ailing Palestinian poet whose son is a terrorist mastermind, safely ensconced in Syria.
Our spy must befriend Hani through Daphna, and persuade him to set up one last meeting with his son before Hani himself succumbs to terminal cancer. At the meeting, in supposedly safe Cyprus, as son comforts father, the Shin Bet will carry out its assassination.
But our anonymous spy, whose marriage has been destroyed by the demands of his job, falls for Daphna and forges a real friendship with Hani. He now has to decide between his duty to his country, and his feelings of love and humanity — his duty to himself if you like.
The plot echoes le Carré’s, A Most Wanted Man, where a well-meaning liberal lawyer in Germany is used to lure a prominent Islamist into a secret-service trap. More intriguingly, there are resonances with real life — Sarid’s book gained international attention by recalling the alleged Mossad killing of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010.
Limassol works as a gripping spy novel (despite, for this reader, the annoying Americanisms of Barbara Harshav’s translation); how our man will resolve his dilemma is left in doubt until the end. It works, too, as a critique of Israeli society, however depressing. In Sarid’s view, the country seems to be largely populated by agents and suspects, gangsters and drug addicts and, most of all, by disappointed hopes .