Saturday, December 25, 2010

John le Carre and Israel (And the Jews)

In his new book, "Our Kind of Traitor", he manages to get in a mention of Israel in a neutral fashion on p. 121:

...his son Ben having invited an Israeli school friend...

I point this out because of le Carre's conflict with the issue of anti-semitism:

a) 1996

...people might say you were embracing anti-Semitic stereotypes?

I have carried that label around with me ever since I wrote "The Little Drummer Girl." I received such awful letters from organized Jewish groups that I never felt on safe ground after that. My great sin was suggesting that the state of Israel — that Palestine — was in fact a twice-promised land.

Still, I didn't feel queasy about addressing the tradition of Jewish tailors in the East End.

b) 1997

In his Nov. 15 article Mr. le Carre said he was warned by friends of the futility of responding to the Times review that appeared on Oct. 20, 1996, which he contended ''smeared'' him as an anti-Semite. The review, by Norman Rush, a novelist, praised the book as a ''tour de force'' but faulted it for portraying the principal character, a Jew, as ''yet another literary avatar of Judas.'' Mr. Rush said the association, ''however little Mr. le Carre intended it,'' left him with a feeling of ''unease.''

Mr. le Carre described his reaction in the article, saying, ''I realized that we were dealing not with offbeat accusations of anti-Semitism so much as the whole oppressive weight of political correctness, a kind of McCarthyite movement in reverse.'' He said he wished he had ignored his friends' advice and gone ahead and written to The Times.

But in fact he did. The Times published his letter complaining that he had been ''tarred with the anti-Semitic brush.'' on Nov. 3, 1996, along with a response from Mr. Rush denying the contention. ''I have not said or implied that Mr. le Carre is an anti-Semite, and I do not think it,'' Mr. Rush wrote.

c) 1998

Here, in the plush surroundings of London's Savoy Hotel, John Le Carre wants to talk about the pain of the outsider and the yearning to belong, about Smiley and Jews and anti-Semitism. And, of course, about Israel.

"Perhaps I learned too early how the British can treat you if you are not quite one of them," he says. "Perhaps that lesson continued as I discovered how the English punish their artists.

"Or perhaps," he suggests, "I am no different from any other artist anywhere in the world who feels himself an outsider in his own country and believes there's another country somewhere else where he will be happier and safer."

..."I knew nothing of the Middle East, but then I have always seen my novels as opportunities for self-education," he says. "Investing my ignorance in my central character -- a leftist English actress -- and making a virtue of her naivety, I set off on a journey of self-enlightenment, living my character, leaning with each breeze -- now toward Israel, now away from it -- in a series of schizophrenic visits to Amman, Damascus, Beirut, South Lebanon and later Tunis. Then back to Israel, across the Allenby Bridge or by way of Cyprus."

Israel, he says, "rocked me to my boots. I had arrived expecting whatever European sentimentalists expect -- a re-creation of the better quarters of Hampstead [in London]. Or old Danzig, or Vienna or Berlin. The strains of Mendelssohn issuing from open windows of a sumer's evening. Happy kids in seamen's hats clattering to school with violin cases in their hands..."

Instead, what he found was "the most extraordinary carnival of human variety that I have ever set eyes on, a nation in the process of re-assembling itself from the shards of its past, now Oriental, now Western, now secular, now religious, but always anxiously moralizing about itself, criticizing itself with Maoist ferocity, a nation crackling with debate, rediscovering its past while it fought for its future."

"No nation on earth," he says passionately, " was more deserving of peace -- or more condemned to fight for it."

In the offices and homes of his Israeli hosts, Le Carre bounced around ideas and probed -- without, he notes, ever having to persuade anyone of his goodwill. "And when I told my hosts that I was about to walk through the looking-glass and take my questions to the Palestinians, they said, 'good idea' and wished me luck. And I believe they meant it."

...What exercises him above all -- wounds him -- are dark charges of anti-Semitism from the United States that have persistently hung over him and his closely examined, intricately dissected work.

"In my perception of the Jewish identity -- in my continuing dialogue with it, in private and in my novels -- I have been aware from early of a spiritual kinship that embraces what is creative in me, and forgives what is despicable, and shares with me the dignity and solitude and anger that are born of alienation.

"Ever since I can remember, my ears have been pricked up for the careless chamber music of English prejudice. And certainly I pride myself on having as good an ear as anyone for the nuances of that repulsive, but mercifully dying art-form, British anti-Semitism in the chattering classes.

"I have been so keen to reproduce it in my books that sometimes the undiscerning have mistaken the singer for the song. These are nervous times. They were nervous from the day I started writing some 40 years ago."

d) and let's go back to 1983

...examining Fiedler in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a character Mr. Laqueur summarily dismisses. There are four main characters in the book, a spy novel which has not been equaled since its publication in 1963: Leamas, the disillusioned anti-hero who works for London; Mundt, the ex-Nazi who runs East German security; Fiedler, the brooding intellectual East German Communist who suspects his superior of treason; and Liz Gold, the naive, idealistic British Communist party member. Her Jewishness is crucial to the story, but it is inexplicably overlooked by Mr. Laqueur.

London wants Fiedler destroyed to save Mundt, its “mole” in the East German regime. London's plan hinges on the mutual sympathy that will develop between Leamas and Fiedler: behind their cynical, jaded façades, both men in fact . . . attempt to stay true to what they perceive as their ideals. It is the book's supreme irony that in a fearfully symmetrical denouement, Leamas unwittingly helps destroy Fiedler, thus helping to restore Mundt's credibility in the eyes of the East Germans. . . .

But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold should be read on another level: as a reflection of the Stalinist show trials of the late 40's and early 50's in Eastern Europe. Fiedler personifies the old guard, intellectual Communists—mostly Jewish—whom the Stalinist apparat had to destroy. Leamas's words to the tribunal: “I'll tell you something—no one else will. . . . Mundt had Fiedler beaten up, and all the time, while it was going on, Mundt baited him and jeered at him for being a Jew.” This mirrors the actual truth: Hungarian, Polish, and Czech Communists of Jewish background were above all jeered at as Jews during their interrogation and torture. Nowhere was this as obvious as in Czechoslovakia; seven out of nine “deviationist” Communists tried in Prague, including Slansky, general secretary of the party, were vilified as Jews. And earlier, in a similar trial in Hungary, the accused who had changed their names were meticulously identified by their original, Jewish-sounding names.

It is surprising that Mr. Laqueur would miss these historical analogies and can accuse Le Carré of implausibility. After all, how many Western authors have written about these trials, not to mention with Le Carré's insight and sympathy for the falsely accused Jewish Communists—and as early as 1963?

And now about The Little Drummer Girl, set in the Middle East. In a curious twist, Mr. Laqueur now finds a “fraudulent air of authenticity hovering about all [the] implausible situations” described in the book. He singles out Kurtz, the leading Israeli anti-terrorist expert, for his analysis. First he searches for literary clues and finds that the trail leading to Conrad is a cold one. Mr. Laqueur is looking for a Jewish villain, but Kurtz defies categorization. . . . Mr. Laqueur himself supplies enough quotes to illustrate Kurtz's nonconformism, yet never spells it out.

Kurtz is a Jewish Smiley. But just as Mr. Laqueur consistently refuses to recognize Smiley's humanity and integrity amid the cunning required by his profession, so he refuses to see Kurtz's higher morality in his skeptic's disguise. Le Carré describes Kurtz as “too paradoxical, too complicated, made of too many souls and colors,” and this does not fit into Mr. Laqueur's argument. In fact, Le Carré captures the more general fate of the Jews when he says about Kurtz: “When he spoke of death, it was clear that death had passed by him often and very close, and might any moment come his way again.”

I also take exception to Mr. Laqueur's accusation that Le Carré takes a pro-Palestinian Arab line in this book. Equating sympathy for bombing victims with a pro-Palestinian stand can only be attributed to narrow-mindedness. After the unusual publicity build-up that preceded The Little Drummer Girl, I was frankly disappointed by the book. I found its overwrought plot slightly insulting to my intelligence, but not at all offensive to my hypersensitive Jewish feelings.

Thomas B. Windholz

Walter Laqueur writes:

...Thomas B. Windholz has lived under both Hitlerism and Stalinism, but Le Carré, alas, has not. Mr. Windholz says that he found The Little Drummer Girl not offensive to his Jewish feelings. Nor did I. Le Carré was charged with anti-Semitism by some critics following the publication of an earlier book, a fact which seems to have escaped Mr. Windholz. I tried to make it clear, unfortunately without success, that I thought this specific charge misplaced: Le Carré seems not to like people in general, why should Jews get preferential treatment? As for Fiedler, the Jewish Communist in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it is perfectly true that Le Carré makes him more sympathetic than Mundt, the ex-Nazi; one ought to be grateful for small mercies. Regarding Liz Gold (in the same novel), I did note that there are a number of characters in these novels who, judging by their names, may or may not be Jewish. But their Jewishness is no more meaningful in this context than the color of their hair, and the issue is therefore irrelevant.

I always remember that he even got the scene in Jerusalem's Hall of Heroism Museum wrong, when he has his character visitor to gallows' room where two Hebrew underground fighters took their own lives rather than permit the British occupiers to hang them.


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