07 January, 2009

Claims to the Promised Land

Recently I read Exodus by Leon Uris. It was odd reading it at a time when the conflict in Palestine was flaring up again. My views of the book are extremely coloured by Israel's actions over the past couple of years. I wrote a review of the book on Goodreads here, but here are some details that struck me over the past few days.

I characterised Exodus as a kind of modern-day appendix to the Old Testament. The details it goes into are more suited to a history than a novel, and certain assumptions (of Jewish uprightness, European malice etc.) go unchallenged throught. Equally I would call it a melodrama where besieged Israel is set upon by archvillains Europe, Britain and Arabia in turn. I do believe there's a large amount of truth in the book, but extracting it from the ferocious pro-Zionist bias proves exhausting. I closed the book a last time with almost as strong a sympathy with Palestinians as I began it.

I was most vexed by the fictional characters in the book. Uris creates characters of high significance on a national level, of impeccable virtue and high ability, and infers from these that the nascent Israel was populated by superhuman beings (who are also quite tiresome - there are precisely two good characters in this book). Exodus has the feel of a re-written history book. I was continually comparing it with the similarly lengthy, similarly primed work by Solzhenitsyn, August 1914. Fictional characters sit alongside real generals there as well, but August 1914 is saturated with a rare compassion and humanity that's in scarce supply here. The crimes against the Jews were beyond all measurement, but that didn't allow me to partake in the same glee the author appears to feel at each bloody riposte to their enemies.

I was surprised at just how little mention of faith there was in the book. Inasmuch as this can be a reliable source on the religion, I just don't get Judaism. The first warriors of the new Israel are absorbed in its history and traditions, and may well feel God is right behind them, but these are nationalists, not holy men.

Finally, Exodus is inconsistent in almost all regards. Uris will sometimes describe the Arabs as illiterate, pitiful people, the next minute stupid and lazy and later simply malign. On occasions he flirts with placing things in perspective but never follows through. Uris is capable of some good passages but I felt the standard slipped sometime after page 150, and didn't really recover. That's a sore blow to a 600-page tome.

I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but Exodus wasn't entirely a waste of my time. At least I can make a better approximation to the zealous Zionist's perspective on the conflict. Even if it may be quite a while before that comes in handy.

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