What is perhaps most interesting about this cluttered but intelligent novel is that its situation has received little attention in fiction: the events in the Middle East before and during World War I that eventually led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the Arabian nations, and the British mandate in Palestine. Though the formation of Israel three decades later has been the subject of a large and diverse body of fiction, the creation of the state that preceded it has been largely ignored; Clive Irving has provided the useful service of bringing this important and dramatic story back to life.
He does so principally through the eyes and activities of Asa Koblensky, who at the age of 23 is already "a veteran of war; he knew all of its falsehoods, its empty ideals." Koblensky has deserted from the Russian Army and made his way to the Middle East; as the book opens he is in Damascus and hoping to find passage to Jerusalem, where in ways he cannot fully articulate he hopes to invigorate and affirm his Jewish heritage.
What he eventually reaches is a place called Zichron Jaacov, a hamlet in Palestine where, under the direction of a brother and sister named Aaron and Sarah Aaronsohn, experiments are under way with the goal of improving agricultural production in the area and thus making it habitable for more people. Tilling the soil, however, is not Koblensky's mission. Instead, he becomes an operative of NILI (from the Hebrew for "The eternal one of Israel will not lie"), a small Jewish espionage outfit that relays information on Turkish activities to the British military staff in Cairo.
This assignment brings Koblensky into other associations: with Michael Bron, a wealthy British Jew who is substantially indifferent to his heritage; with Bron's gentile wife, Tessa, a thoughtful, inquisitive woman who is drawn to explore new frontiers of freedom; with Owen Kippax, a clinical British officer who has large ambitions and is fascinated by the desert and its nomadic residents; with Esther Mosseri, an Egyptian Jew who is deeply involved with an underground nationalist movement; and with a number of actual historical figures, among them the Aaronsohns, T.E. Lawrence, Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Hogarth.
The cast of characters is in fact rather too crowded, a difficulty that is compounded by the variety of military and political events unfolding at the same time: the successful attack by Lawrence and his Arab rebels on the Turkish installation at Akaba; the courtship of the British by Chaim Weizmann and other advocates of a Palestinian state; the negotiations between the British and Ibn Saud; the organization of the Ikhwan, the Arab vigilante outfit; and the ultimate decision by the British to invade Palestine and drive the Turks out. This is a lot to cram into one novel, even a moderately long one, and not all of it fits.
Beyond that, there is even more to "Promise the Earth." For in addition to writing a purely "historical" novel, Irving attempts to reflect upon the deeper issues raised by the events he describes: the use and abuse of the Jews by virtually all parties to the conflict; the indifference of the Jewish activists to the legitimate claims of the Arab activists; the cynical manipulation by the British of Jews and Arabs alike; the necessity, as Irving portrays it, for the assimilated Jews to abandon their caution and embrace the Zionist homeland.
This is indeed a lot to ask one novel to bear, but for the most part Irving is in control of his characters and the events through which he rushes them. He manages with equal felicity to depict the bustle and squalor of Cairo and the arid beauty of the desert. Though he too often asks his characters to serve as spokesmen for various causes and ideologies (Koblensky is particularly given to sounding like a leaflet), he does manage to make most of them come to life--especially, interestingly enough, Lawrence of Arabia. And he very sensitively portrays the process by which "the canopy of medieval isolation was . . . torn from Arabia by the gusts of war."
Irving is a lucid, unpretentious writer who doesn't get in the way of his own story--a story that he plans to continue in a sequel to "Promise the Earth." If he can find a way to kill off a few more characters, thus bringing his population down to a more manageable size, that second volume should be worth waiting for.