In the Jerusalem of 1945, he’s known as Yossi: a shrewd, agreeable taxi driver with grade-school Hebrew and fledgling English, ferrying tourists around the Old City in a black Peugeot (not his), showing them the Tower of David and the Jaffa Gate, selling them extra film and gratefully accepting their gratuities.
Back in his native Latvia, though, he was Brand, an apt name for a Jew branded by loss. His mechanical skills allowed him to walk free of the same Holocaust that swallowed up his wife, his sister and his parents. Now he’s one of the thousands of refugees who have washed up in British-occupied Palestine, and the only thing keeping him afloat are the bogus papers supplied to him by the Haganah, a Jewish underground group waging war (along with the more radical Irgun) for an independent Zion.
Brand knows that if he’s ever taken in for questioning, his fake identity will get him deported. But that’s all right. He’s been around enough to know that “as a Jew you were never safe.”
In fact, no one is safe in “City of Secrets,” Stewart O’Nan’s biting, bruising, achingly sad historical novel. Certainly not Brand, coaxed and coerced by his clandestine cell into ever more dangerous assignments. Not his girlfriend and fellow freedom fighter, Eva, a scarred former actress reduced to working as a call girl at the King David Hotel. (Brand drives her to her assignations.) Not Jerusalem itself: “a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new,” threatening at any moment to explode.
In this kindling time, even the happiest moments bristle with danger. “Back at Eva’s flat they had a nightcap under the stars in her little roof garden, Benny Goodman tootling from the other room, and slept with the windows open. In the middle of a dream, walking the streets of Riga, [Brand] woke to a mournful baying — a lonely dog, he thought, and then it was joined by another, and another, an entire pack. Outside the Dung Gate, in the Valley of Hinnom, the jackals were hunting.”
“City of Secrets” is, by inclination and design, quiet and finite, but its impact is deceptively large because O’Nan (“West of Sunset,” “Emily, Alone”) has something that can’t be taught to a writer — and can indeed be unlearned by talented writers: the gift of authenticity. You’ll rarely catch O’Nan being an author. You’ll simply feel his story rolling past you, in the manner of an old Peugeot.
Maybe you’ll register the simple rightness of a trip through the desert: the “loose consensus of tire tracks,” the “liquid ripples of heat,” “a crow jabbing at something in the dust.” Maybe, without quite knowing why, you’ll savor the snow “softening the graves” beneath Brand’s window and the Primus stove and bottle of Johnnie Walker he keeps in his apartment and the downstairs landlady, picking away at Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on a piano, “trying the opening bars over and over,” her pet bird “chattering like a critic.”
The beauty of “City of Secrets” is that it insists on Brand’s ordinariness without ever erasing his complications: the warm-hearted, half-hearted terrorist who isn’t “weak enough to kill himself” but isn’t “strong enough to stop wanting to” and who is confronted, at all turns, with “the question of what to do with his old life, memory seething in him like a disease.” All of which leads to the chillingly right moment where Brand realizes, in the course of an armed robbery, that he’s talking to his hostages the way his former concentration-camp guard used to talk to him.
The book climaxes in an actual historical event that, then as now, blurs the line between victims and victimizers. But carnage has been stalking this book from the very first pages. In one especially poignant moment, Brand recalls visiting the Latvian forest where his wife and 25,000 other Jews were killed: “It was May, and the first shoots of grass had sprung up, fringing the mounds with green. All around, weeds and thistles grew knee-high, thriving reminders of the relentless business of life. He stood in the clearing, looking at the trees on all sides reaching for the sun, the birds flitting from branch to branch, calling to one another, and knew he had to leave.”
Louis Bayard is the author of the forthcoming novel “Lucky Strikes.”
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking. 194 pp. $22