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Review: City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 2016. 194 pp. $22

Brand, a Latvian survivor of the Holocaust, drives a taxi in Jerusalem in 1945. But that simple statement skips over many complexities. The British are clinging to their mandate over Palestine, refusing entry to dispossessed Jews like Brand and combing the population for illegal immigrants, whom they deport. Consequently, he must live underground, so his papers, taxi, and apartment come courtesy of a revolutionary cell committed to Israeli independence, which knows him only as Jossi. Since even the possession of a weapon is a hanging offense, ferrying his comrades to clandestine rendezvous or military operations puts him in great danger.

Jerusalem, VE Day, May 8, 1945 (Courtesy Matson Photographic Service, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Jerusalem, VE Day, May 8, 1945 (Courtesy Matson Photographic Service, Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Naturally, Brand becomes more than a chauffeur, about which he has mixed feelings–repugnance at violence, excitement at wielding power, pride in helping create a Jewish homeland. But as his role widens, he realizes that his cell, which he thought belonged to the Haganah, a comparatively moderate organization, has been taken over by the more violent, provocative Irgun. What holds him together is his love for Eva, a fellow Latvian and cell member, who arouses his jealousy by working as a prostitute to gain information.

From this tense, conflict-ridden premise comes a thriller of remarkable depth and breadth, especially considering how spare it is. The jacket quotes a blurb by Alan Furst, and O’Nan deserves the compliment in more than one way. Not only has he shown the same elegant economy as the best of Furst’s more recent World War II thrillers, he’s pushed the envelope. Rather than have Brand be an expert, O’Nan makes him an amateur who can’t master his risky impulses to retain human connection when the smart money says to shut up and pretend you see nothing. But how could he remain silent, when his wife, parents, grandparents, and sister were all murdered, and when he watched a friend stomped to death in a concentration camp? Brand’s confusion and ambivalence, rather than sangfroid or professional devotion, are what drive the narrative.

As with Furst, City of Secrets tastes of atmosphere:

The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers. . . . The very stones were secondhand, scavenged and fit back into place haphazardly, their Roman inscriptions inverted. It was the rainy season, and the walls were gray instead of golden, the souks teeming with rats. An east wind thrashed the poplars and olive trees, stirring up trash in cul-de-sacs, rattling windows. He’d lost too much weight during the war and couldn’t get warm.

When Brand goes into action, there’s tension aplenty. But the author also captures tension of a different kind, the everyday variety. Brand must wait for information, which usually comes unexpectedly and never fully enough to satisfy his curiosity. Every drive through Jerusalem means passing British roadblocks, where there’s always a chance he’ll be discovered as an illegal immigrant, or that soldiers will search his car and find what he’s not supposed to have. He craves Eva’s company, but also her love, which she denies him, and which he’s learned never to discuss. Accordingly, every move Brand makes, even if it’s to stay in his apartment, alone, ratchets up the stakes.

City of Secrets manages to suggest much about politics and hatreds without having to narrate them, an admirable part of the economy I mentioned. O’Nan conveys the bitter divisions between the Haganah and the Irgun; the British occupiers’ anti-Semitism; and the moral challenges inherent to fighting for a righteous cause. I like City of Secrets much better than a novel I reviewed on a similar subject, I Lived in Modern Times, or, for that matter, O’Nan’s West of Sunset, about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years. That was a nice novel; City of Secrets is terrific.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.