Damascus Gate

by Robert Stone

(Houghton Mifflin, 500 pp., $26)

Robert Stone is a first-rate writer of fiction. He may not have a voice that is unique, but the voice that he does have, while shared with others of his times, has been burnished to a fine tone: spare, tough, sharply observant, capable of genuine lyricism and tenderness. He is a man who has read widely and he cares deeply about his craft; and when one catches traces in his writing of the great originals--an undertone of Hemingway, an occasional riff of Conrad or of Joyce--these are always perfectly modulated. The more is the pity, then, that Stone's new novel, written with his usual skill, is really a rip-off of a country and a tradition that deserve better at his hands.

The Damascus Gate is the English name of one of the main entrances into the old walled city of Jerusalem, a point near where Arab Jerusalem and Jewish Jerusalem meet, and Stone's novel, set in contemporary Israel, takes place in just such an interstice between Israelis and Palestinians, one inhabited by international types in which Israel (and Jerusalem in particular) abounds: journalists, TV crews, diplomats, U.N. staff, international relief and human rights workers, foreign archaeologists and Bible scholars, and Christian missionaries and men of the cloth, to say nothing of religious pilgrims, seekers, and lunatics of all kinds. Judging from my own limited acquaintance with such types, Stone has a keen eye for the condescension with which many of them regard the haplessly quarreling natives among whom they live. And yet few Israelis or Palestinians, it must be said, have much to do with them-- which, when it comes to its representational ambitions, is one of Damascus Gate's problems. But I will get back to that.

Renting an apartment in Jerusalem is Christopher Lucas, a freelance American journalist who has come to Israel to do a feature story--exactly about what, he is not sure. The lapsed Catholic son of a Christian-Jewish intermarriage, Lucas has knocked about the world a good bit and seen more than his share of human brutality and idiocy. Like many members of his profession, he is curious by nature and cynical by habit, and the stories that appeal to him are "the ones that expose depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit. He desperately preferred almost anything to blood and soil, ancient loyalty, timeless creeds. "

Lucas finally decides to write about the "Jerusalem Syndrome," the known propensity of some pre-psychotic individuals to suffer delusional breakdowns of a religious nature while visiting the Holy City. Then he meets an attractive and street-smart American woman named Sonia Barnes. Sonia is half- Jewish like himself (the other half is black), and has made Israel her home. A part-time nightclub singer, she has mystical sensibilities that originally brought her to Jerusalem to sit at the feet of a Sufi guru named Berger, who dies early on in the novel.

Sonia is not your ordinary American Jewish immigrant. The world she moves in is as international as Lucas's: her friends include Nuala Rice, a proPalestinian Irish human rights worker in the Gaza Strip; Raziel ("Razz") Melker, an American Jewish musician and ex-junkie who has also been "a yeshivah student, a Zen monk at Tassajara, a member of a Hebrew-Christian commune" and a follower of Berger's, and is now heavily into Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and messianic fantasies; and Raziel's Gentile companion Adam De Kuff, a musician too, as well as a Yale graduate and the wealthy heir of an old New Orleans family.

De Kuff, a brilliant though mentally unbalanced polymath whose conversation with Raziel ranges over "Zen and Theravada and the Holy Ghost, the bodhisattvas, the sefirot and the Trinity, Pico della Mirandola, Teresa of Avila, Philo, Abulafia, Adam Kadmon, the Zohar, the sentience of diamonds, the Shekhinah, the meaning of tikkun, and Kali and Matronit under the dread designation of the moon," is both Raziel's mentor and his protege; for Raziel, while acting the role of the disciple, has convinced De Kuff that De Kuff is the Messiah, and eggs him on to declare himself as such.

What follows is a religious thriller. Lucas falls in love with Sonia, who comes increasingly under the influence of Raziel and De Kuff and joins their little band. While attracted to Lucas, she is, to his immense frustration, less interested in a physical relationship than in the new world about to be born. She seeks to win him over to a belief in that new world. Unpersuaded, he nonetheless gets involved with the group, in part to be close to Sonia and in part to research his subject, of which both Raziel and De Kuff seem outstanding examples. Nor is he so removed from his religious upbringing that something in him does not thrill to the message of an End of Days in which, as De Kuff tells the ragtag audiences that he preaches to in the alleyways of the Old City, "the old world will disappear and things will become the word of God incarnate ... the world will become Torah."

But there are also other messianic forces at work in Jerusalem: ultra-right- wing Jewish nationalists who, assisted by an unsavory British adventurer named Fotheringill, are planning to blow up the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount by planting a bomb in the ancient tunnels beneath it, which can be reached from a secret passage opening off the Old City courtyard in which Berger lived. And Sonia, returning with Lucas from a trip to the Galilee--in the course of which De Kuff's messiahship is symbolically revealed, Jesus- like, to his followers--discovers that Raziel is not only still on drugs, which are the real secret of his eschatological visions, but is also in league with the mosque bombers.

The finale of Damascus Gate has the kind of fast-moving action that one associates with Stone's fiction. It can make one feel, even while appreciating his adeptness with scenes of violence and suspense, that he is not unaware of a movie industry in Hollywood. Aghast at what is happening, and suspecting sinister forces in the Shabak, the Israeli internal security service, of being in cahoots with the bombers also, Sonia rushes off to the tunnels in the hope of stopping the madness.

Plunged into darkness by a failed flashlight, she wanders blindly through an underground labyrinth of eerie voices and strange phantasms until, following the unexpected appearance of Fotheringill, there is a sudden eruption of gunfire, a tremendous explosion--and a bittersweet ending. Fotheringill, it turns out, is himself working for the Shabak, who have been on the good side all along: having infiltrated the bombers, they arrive with a commando unit in the nick of time to save the mosque. De Kuff is mistaken for a Jew by a rampaging Arab mob and lynched, while Raziel is beaten senseless and taken comatose to the hospital. Lucas, with enough material for ten feature stories, or perhaps even for a novel written under the pseudonym of Robert Stone, decamps for America. Before leaving, he asks Sonia to join him. She replies:

I love you too, Christopher. I do. But let me tell you something. When I'm not here trying to be the best Jew I can be, I'm going to be in Liberia, Rwanda, Tanzania. In Sudan. Cambodia. I don't know, man, Chechenya... We'll see each other again. But if you have to ask me will you be my wife? I have to say no. I don't want that. I want to be free and I want to be here and Jewish and I want to do my little no-account bit for tikkun olam. Even if I use up life that way. I'm sorry, my love. There's no doubt in my mind.

Tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for "repairing the world," is a phrase that, even now that it has been popularized by the Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim, and even more so in Fackenheim's wake by the left-wing magazine Tikkun, might not be expected to turn up in the work of a leading American novelist who has written about drugs, Vietnam, and Central America. But neither would such kabbalistic terms as shekhinah (God's femininely imaged presence in the world), adam kadmon (the primal Adam), sefirot (the ten " spheres" of Creation linking the Godhead with the material universe), or matronita ("the Matron," an Aramaic synonym for the Shekhinah). So what gives?

What gives, one supposes, is the current fad for Kabbalah in certain Jewish circles in America and Israel, which suggested to Stone (who already in his Central American novel A Flag for Sunrise evinced a fascination with the relation of religious faith, or the anguished lack of it, to revolutionary action) the idea of organizing a novel, dealing with the interplay of mysticism and messianic politics, around kabbalistic ideas and imagery. (Or more precisely, around the ideas and imagery of Lurianic Kabbalah, since the fusion of Kabbalah and messianic fervor, largely absent from the thirteenth- century Zohar, the seminal text of kabbalistic tradition, took place in the writings of the sixteenth-century rabbi Isaac Ashkenazi Luria. It was Luria who shifted the emphasis of kabbalism from theosophy, the understanding of divine reality, to theurgy, the transformation of it, which he held could be done by acts of spiritual concentration.)

As a way of universalizing his treatment, Stone has made his kabbalistic Messiah not only a Gentile, but a religious syncretist who combines Lurianic doctrines with Sufism, Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, Christian Millenarianism, and the mystery religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Indeed, as the Israeli psychiatrist Pinchas Obermann explains to Lucas, the schizophrenic De Kuff is thought by his followers to contain within himself all the great spiritual figures in the history of mankind, reincarnated "as a single recurring soul."

Needless to say, although De Kuff's and Raziel's beliefs are little more than the tinsel of rhetoric, there is nothing wrong with staging a novel with the flash of tinsel. What matters in fiction, after all, is what ideas do to characters, not what they are in themselves. The lack of verisimilitude in Damascus Gate is not due to the two men's failure to be intellectually coherent. (Since one of them is spaced out and the other is mentally ill, why should they be?) It is due, rather, to the unfortunate fact that the ideas attributed to them are essentially inappropriate for Stone's plot.

Turning to political violence as a means of coaxing a reluctant God to manifest Himself in history is a theme that clearly intrigues Stone; and clearly, too, his choice of Israel as a fictional venue was dictated by this. What better place to explore this theme, indeed, than a Jewish state in which religious and nationalist extremists actually did, back in the 1980s, plot to destroy the Mosque of Omar in order to rebuild the Temple on its ancient site? The problem is that the actual thinking of Israel's religious and nationalist extremists has nothing to do with Kabbalah, and that the fantasies of a character like Raziel have no relevance to anything happening in their circles.

True, Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine in British Mandate times and a leading theoretician of religious Zionism, was deeply influenced by Kabbalah. True, too, his son, Rabbi Tsvi Naftali Yehudah Kook, was the intellectual master of Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement that sprung up after the Six Day War. Yet the most militant settlers and their supporters are not mystics and never have been mystics. It is not the hand of God that they have been trying to force with their actions, but the hand of the Israeli government, by seeking--alas, not entirely unrealistically--to embroil it in an endless holy war with Islam. Their messianic vision, if such it be, has never been the ontologically theurgic one of Isaac Luria. It is rather the pragmatically political one of the antimystical and rationalist Maimonides, who (though his writings otherwise provide no support for their policies) wrote:

Do not think that the king Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. If there arise a king from the House of David who ... rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.

I hope this will not be taken for critical quibbling. By handling Jewish religious nationalism in the wrong framework, Stone ends up writing about the wrong country. In general, not even his admirable powers of observation can hide the fact that his grasp of Israeli reality is far less sure than his grasp of Central America, with its left-wing Catholic priests and lay workers, that he wrote about so marvelously in A Flag for Sunrise. There are simply too many mistakes and inaccuracies: the lapses of a writer who has spent time gathering material in a foreign land, taken extensive and hurried notes, and not always been able to read what he has written upon returning home.

Thus, German Jews in Israel are called yekkes, not tekkes; the Jewish marketplace in Jerusalem is Machaneh Yehuda, not "Machaneh"; a non-Hasidic European Jew is a mitnaged, not a mitnag; the initial consonant in the Hebrew word kavana (concentration in prayer or meditation) is not "glottalized" (some initial "k"'s are in Palestinian Arabic, with which Stone's notes apparently got confused at this point); the numerical value of the Hebrew letter kuf is 100, not 19; and so on. Errors of this sort (their uncorrected appearance in print reflects sadly on the decline of copy-editing as a conscientious profession in today's publishing world) are natural. They would be more pardonable if Stone did not deliberately flaunt such details to create the illusion that he knows more about his subject than he does.

For some time now, at least since John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served authors of thrillers as a topos to write about from the vantage point of world-weary observers like Christopher Lucas, who, themselves lacking all belief in any transcendent purpose in life, are simultaneously drawn and repelled by the consuming faith that motivates religious and political zealots. This genre has come to have rules of its own--among them, that the zealots must be intelligent and initially engaging; that their actions must lead to actual or narrowly averted catastrophe; that they must be, on the Arab and Jewish side, mirror images of each other. While Stone skimps a bit on the last of these (though he does include the obligatory scene with Palestinian fanatics in the Gaza Strip, it is the Jews who exercise him), on the whole he observes them faithfully. His ending, too, sticks to the convention. Like Fielding and Aziz at the conclusion of A Passage to India, Lucas and Sonia must go their separate ways, for the believer and the agnostic cannot lie down together.

Yet while Lucas leaves Israel with painfully fond memories of "a land in exile, a God in His absconding, a love in its loss," there is in his attitude toward it, too, an ultimate condescension that corrodes the pages of Damascus Gate. Ah, Israel! these pages seem to say. So alluring in your dreams and certainties to the Western, rational mind--and so fatal if it lets itself be snared by them. But the truth is that Israel is overwhelmingly a place in which the Western, rational mind prevails and argues with itself, even in the settlements of the West Bank. The Jerusalem Syndrome is not an Israeli illness, nor is the country seen from the Damascus Gate the real one. For an outsider to assume otherwise is to be paternalistic toward its inhabitants and indulgent toward himself, and to make things conveniently easy in either case. Art that makes things easier than they should be is never art of the highest quality.

Hillel Halkin is a writer and translator living in Israel, and a contributing editor of the Forward.

By Hillel Halkin