Everyone in the region is waiting to see what will happen when Salem dies. Will the Israeli army steal his corpse to avoid his becoming a martyr? Or will his community retrieve the body and further the cycle of grief and revenge? “When people are killed here, it’s like their bodies belong to an ideology,” observes a German freelance journalist, Vera, who lives in Tel Aviv and is covering the story. “On Friday, Christ will die. The son of God, a corpse. And it will be this body . . . nailed up and dying in public . . . that will inflict millennia of believers with a madness to kill and die.”
Vera is the most memorable of a swirl of characters who intersect in direct or indirect ways: Sacks lists 32 at the front of the book, and she jumps around so much from one to the next that it’s useful to have the reference point. We go into the perspectives of 19 of these characters. Four of the most dominant are Jewish: army reservist and animator Ido; his American-born wife, Emily, a social media influencer and new mother; settler and infantryman Ori; and his mother Miriam, a religious mentor to new brides. Two of the major characters are Arab: comparative literature professor Samar and Bethlehem University student Hamid. Vera is the only neutral character among the central perspectives, and though the balance seems at a glance to weigh more on the Israeli point of view, Hamid and Samar are arguably the second- and third-most-prominent characters in the novel, after Vera.
Jerusalem has seven open gates, just as the novel goes into seven main points of view. The thousand gates of the title evoke the 32 characters and 19 perspectives, windows into souls, but also checkpoints, reminders of the boundaries and barriers, the fear and distrust plaguing an embattled land. Such a large and various cast reflects the scope of a book whose project seems nothing short of dramatizing one of the world’s most unyielding conflicts in a way that shows all sides and takes none. We hear from the victims of violence that will only escalate after the initial attacks: Yael’s father, prostrate with grief in his daughter’s room; Salem himself, revealing the memory of terror “that lives in his body.” We hear from the perpetrators, some of them remorseless and eager for more blood, others wondering what had taken hold of them in a moment of violence, worried about getting caught.
“In Israel we are always soldiers,” Ido says, and he speaks for the multitudes on both sides of the conflict, those directly at war, and those in their homes, where a child’s room “is also the family bomb shelter, with reinforced walls and only a small high window.” Sacks is an extraordinarily gifted writer whose intelligence, compassion and skill on both the sentence and tension level rise to meet her ambition. She keeps us constantly on edge, unaware of who the story will go to and what event might happen next. In this environment of fear, everyone’s senses are heightened. The clash of religions, the dread of violence fuel intense desires. “The way Vera talks about sex,” a friend thinks, “it’s like the sex is a metaphor for something else, for some darker, stronger need that nobody can name.” It’s a need to defy death, a fervent desire to live. Perhaps this, above all, links the many characters together.
“City of a Thousand Gates” might not appeal to readers who like their stories neatly unified, resolved, centered on the individual. It’s an imperfect book, unbothered by a few loose ends. But it makes a convincing case for a literature of multiplicity, polyphonic and clamorous, abuzz with challenges and contradictions, with no clear answers but a promise to stay alert to the world, in all its peril and vitality.
Porter Shreve is the author of four novels. He directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
City of a Thousand Gates
By Rebecca Sacks
Harper. 400 pp. $27.99