Taxi rides to terror


Publishers blurbs sometimes do their authors more harm than good. Having laughed immoderately at the Mills-and-Boonian description of City of Secrets (Allen and Unwin 12.99) the slim novel by Stewart ONan, I was pleasantly surprised to find this a sharply written and atmospheric rendering of life in the Jewish underground in post-war Jerusalem.

The protagonist is a bewildered Latvian Jew, Brand, who has lost everyone he cares about in the Holocaust, and landed up, more by accident than design, in Mandate Palestine, helped by the Haganah. He survived because he knew how to fix an engine, and such skills as he retains are brought to bear here as the Haganah provides him with a car and a useful cover story as a taxi driver.

Sometimes he ferries tourists around Jerusalem; more often, both the Haganah and the more violent Irgun use him to take them to sites where they can blow up British installations.

The writing is spare and evocative — if at times a bit too geographical, as Brand’s taxi weaves its way through the British road-blocks in and around Jerusalem. On their way to Brand’s first attack, O’Nan writes of the conspirators: “Lipschitz was the last, wearing a black frock coat too heavy for the weather. Beneath it he had a Sten machine gun Fein and Yellin admired as if it were a grandchild”. A perfect delineation.

Survivors’ guilt is threaded throughout the novel as Brand falls in love with another member of the Haganah cell, Eva, one more “graduate” of the Holocaust. It becomes apparent that so many of these young people, old before their time, have nothing to lose; parallels with today’s suicide bombers seem inevitable. Brand himself has more questions than answers, and it seems inevitable that he, too, will suffer again because of someone else’s fierce ideology. He survived the camps by being an observer, but this is not a choice open to him in Jerusalem.

We move inexorably towards the set-piece of Irgun violence against the British, the attack on the King David Hotel in July 1946. As O’Nan makes clear, it’s only a sliver of time since some of the perpetrators were themselves victims in the concentration camps.

It’s not an easy read, but it has filmic quality written all over it. One caveat: the tiny typeface, way too small for comfort.

Jenni Frazer

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