A conversation with Jonathan Wilson
Author of A PALESTINE AFFAIR
Q: What initially drew you to British Mandate Palestine as a setting for your novel?
A: Palestine in the 1920’s was a fascinating place. The Brits preserved their ornamental colonial culture there, like an India in miniature; they went jackal hunting near Tel Aviv (there were no foxes available) and duck shooting on the Sea of Galilee. But a good number of the colonial staff, including top administrators, were Jewish, so that, as you can imagine, led to some testing conflicts of interest. I was also drawn to the raw beauty of the place, in particular Jerusalem, its Old City more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, but beyond its high walls a rough and tumble development and an assortment of new arrivals: dreamers, charlatans, lovers of ideas and lovers, all suitably displaced. An environment of stones, debris, construction, and wild flowers growing in the crevices.
Q: And Joyce Bloomberg (nee Pierce) an American woman, neither Jewish nor Arab, is one of them. Can you talk a little about her? What is she doing in Jerusalem?
A: She’s there with her husband, Mark Bloomberg, a British painter out on a propaganda commission – but she also has her own reasons for making the trip to Jerusalem. I won’t go into those here but I will say that I saw Joyce as one of the “new women” who emerged in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War, a little like Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Paradoxically, a lot of women came out of the war feeling stronger. The exigencies of war turned Victorian gender roles on their head. The women had taken on new jobs previously the preserve of men, and there was a sexual urgency that didn’t allow for primness of any kind. The men who survived, by contrast, (the dead were in the millions) often wounded and broken, were in a sorry state. My Joyce is one of the newly empowered, sexually and otherwise (she smokes cigarettes!) but not quite sure what to do with that power.
That uncertainty is at the heart of the novel.
Q: One thing that might surprise readers is that the book addresses not just tensions between Arabs and Jews but between Jews and Jews – and violence between the two camps with their differing beliefs about the future of the region.
A: After the murder of Yitzhak Rabin there was a lot of talk about the singularity of the event: a Jew assassinating another Jew for political reasons was generally believed to be unheard of. I knew of at least one other occasion, murky in its details for many years, but eventually revealed as eerily foreshadowing the Rabin case: a Jewish assassination of a prominent Jew, Jacob De Haan, a murder also undertaken to achieve a political end, but in Jerusalem in 1924. It seemed particularly rich material for a novel right now: the murder, its cover up, the history of the time and its undeniable links to the present situation in the Middle East.
Q: So much of it is based on actual events? How do you draw a line between truth and fiction?
A: I try to be as faithful as I can to the salient details. For example, nobody smokes a brand of cigarettes that didn’t exist, or takes a train to some place where there wasn’t a station. On the other hand, I let my characters lead me where they want to go, which is frequently not in the direction taken by their antecedents in the real world, whom, I should add, are composite figures anyway, mixed and merged in my imagination.
Q: What about the characters Mark Bloomberg and his wife Joyce? Did a British/Jewish painter named Bloomberg and his American wife actually live in Jerusalem in the 1920’s?
A: No. A British/Jewish painter named David Bomberg (who after years of neglect in his lifetime now has a very solid reputation in England) lived in Jerusalem from 1923-1924. He was twice married, but neither of his wives was American. Bomberg is certainly behind the character of Bloomberg – but so too are other British artists of the period, Mark Gertler (who was Dora Carrington’s lover, and on the periphery of the Bloomsbury group) and the poet/painter Isaac Rosenberg. Joyce is very much my own creation. Bomberg owned a gaucho hat much like the one that Bloomberg wears – but I’m entirely responsible for Joyce.
Q: What was it like politically in Jerusalem in the 1920’s? Do I already have to know a lot about politics to follow your book?
A: Jerusalem was a small city in the early 1920’s, its population only around 100,000, and its politics were far from drawing the daily world-wide attention that they demand today. Nevertheless, it was a city where major issues over the future of Palestine were smoldering and sometimes they erupted into small conflagrations in the form of riots. By and large the British, who arrived in the aftermath of the First World War following 500 years of Turkish rule, were able to control both the Jewish and Arab populations, both of whom had national aspirations. But it certainly seems that you could feel big trouble, a whirling tornado of it, coming in the not too distant future.
I’m quite sure that you don’t need advanced esoteric knowledge of any kind to follow my novel, but an interest in love and passion might be an advantage. Perhaps too a fascination with the pressures and accidents of history and how they combine with the idiosyncrasy of personality to buffet, burn and transform well-meaning individuals into actors in a high drama.
Q: You lived in Jerusalem for a period of time. How much research did you do there?
A: I lived in Jerusalem from 1977-81. I had gone out there from New York (where I had been living for a year – I was at Columbia University) to take up a teaching position in the English Department of the Hebrew University. I had a long-term girlfriend with me, but six months after we arrived, around midnight on Christmas Eve, she disappeared into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and when she eventually came out she was with another guy. After that I bought a bicycle, but the distraction was temporary, Jerusalem’s hills soon had me beaten. I’ve returned to Jerusalem frequently since I left. I’ve never done any real research there, other than the usual novelist’s approach, conducting my daily life, taking in the sights and sounds, wandering around, having coffee with people and so on.
Q: How does the Israel of today mirror the country during the era in which A PALESTINE AFFAIR takes place?
A: On the surface the city is strikingly different now from what it was in 1924 when, for example, there was only one traffic light: the population has burgeoned, the city has vastly expanded. On the other hand, the Old City remains pretty much as it was, with the exception of the rebuilt Jewish Quarter, and it seems to me that the seeds of much of the present conflict that we are so – perhaps too – familiar with were sown during the period of the British Mandate, which is when my novel is set. The conflicting aspirations of two peoples arguing over the same narrow tract of land were already vibrantly manifest in 1924. Whether the British made things better or worse is an open question: either way its administration, (which included a number of British Jews who were placed in an absolutely no-win situation) found Palestine, like India, an impossible nut to crack.
Q: Joyce gets involved in some nasty business–infidelity, illegal gun-running, etc–once her husband left for Petra. What do you think motivated her to follow this path?
A: I think the answer here is ultimately best left for readers to determine. One character describes her as “a chameleon.” She’s an enthusiast, but perhaps more in love with her enthusiasm itself than with its shifting objects.
Q: There are so many strong characters with their individual struggles here. Somehow there’s a sense that behind it all you as author are perhaps closest to Kirsch, the police investigator who falls in love with Joyce, and has to struggle with her precarious moral position in the end. Is he the hero of the book? Is there anything of him in you?
A: Kirsch is more than a little lost when the book opens, by the end he is wiser but his wisdom comes at a price. There are two central male figures in the novel, Kirsch and Bloomberg, one young, one middle-aged, at different moments each is heroic in his own way, rising to meet challenges that are sometimes moral, sometimes artistic and occasionally physical as well. They wouldn’t be who they are, of course, if grief and failure of one kind or another, particularly in love, had not been a part of their daily diet for a while. As for my proximity to Robert Kirsch, by an odd coincidence he lives (although more than fifty years earlier) in the same apartment that I once rented in Jerusalem. On hot nights we both liked to drag our mattresses outside and sleep on the balcony. Kirsch also experiences a certain ambivalence about both the country of his birth, England, and the country of his current residence, Palestine. When I lived in Jerusalem I certainly felt some identity confusions. All happily resolved, of course, when I became a U.S. citizen.