About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Acts of Terror and Contrition: A Nuclear Fable - a novella about Israel

As a slight pause in my posts on modernism, here is the opening of my unpublished political novella about Israel. [Let me recommend in any case the writings of Grossman and Oz, for example In the Land of Israel (Harvest in Translation).]

“If anybody had ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear—concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance.” —Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

He had no future. He disdained it. He was a force. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. —Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Part One:
Wednesday, September 26, 1990

Arie did not exercise his prerogative to leave early on these High Holiday evenings. Not that the autumn holidays signified to him; they were rituals honored more by silence than observation. And the Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait required his full attention. Two weeks ago, the American President threatened Saddam with war if he did not withdraw, and these first ten days of the New Year signaled only the inevitability of war.

It had been during these same high holy days nearly a decade ago that Beirut had exploded before his eyes. It was in these same days following Rosh Hashanah; he had been stationed there and seen the hundreds of bloodied bodies in Sabra and Chatila. The dead Palestinians had gravel stuck to their wet red faces, or sometimes they were torn to pieces, without heads or hands, or with their inner organs blown out. The Maronite soldiers would dodge into the doorways where Arie and a few fellow operatives were assigned to watch; the Christians would look blankly at the Jews, would look not for approval but for recognition.

Blood was appropriate to such New Year’s rites, the pagan mixed with the sacred. Shed blood was a sort of harvest and renewal and a harbinger. 5771—the New Year just dawning promised to be bloodier than ever. So the generic rituals were celebrated silently by Arie, without orthodox fanfare; they were a mere ornament. Always, for him, it was fact more than form that compelled attention, and his mind amassed fact after fact, always finding interest in their divergences from the expected. The fact that pictures taken by the spacecraft Magellan had yesterday revealed active volcanoes erupting amid the churning clouds of Venus’ surface. Or the fact that today the Russian Foreign Minister had for the first time adopted the words Americans were using to describe their global domination: the new world order: “An act of terrorism has been perpetuated against the emerging new world order.” Or there was the fact that six American Marine Corps OV-10D Bronco aircraft had arrived this morning in Saudi Arabia. Not Israel.

“Not Israel,” he said to two aides sitting on the black vinyl couch before his desk.

“Who needs those planes more than we?” Simon asked. He lit a cigarette, speaking as he dangled it between his fingers. He was a tall man with unsuccessfully combed dark hair.

“The Saudis need them more than we,” Rachel said. “America will mount its war against Iraq from Saudi Arabia. Not Israel. This morning the UN proclaimed the air embargo of Iraq. Tomorrow will come war—or if not tomorrow, next month. Soon.”

“We need Broncos and Eagles and Patriots all the more,” Simon spoke directly to the woman, with her neat short blonde hair and small sinewy hands. “We need them because Saddam says it is Israel who will pay with blood if the Security Council enforces the embargo against him. He declares holy war on us! When he sends his dozens of Scud missiles against us, we will need all the Patriot missiles we can get to intercept the bombs.”

“‘The fire will eat up half of Israel,’” Arie quoted ironically. “Can you tell me why always they say ‘fire’?”

The autumn sun glowed now above Jerusalem. The city stretched before Arie, who gazed out his office window. Together the three of them sat in the top story of a steel and glass building rooted in the ancient soil which David and Solomon had trod. A fortified lot with low reinforced walls circled the building like a mote; on the roof were shielded weapons to maintain the integrity of Arie’s fortress.

“What does fire mean?” Rachel asked, mocking and skeptical; she placed a hand on the classified report resting by her on the vinyl couch. “Ever since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and President Bush’s September 11th speech threatening war, Saddam has targeted Israel, and not only with words. Tarik Aziz said this morning, ‘We will attack Israel, and we will burn its cities to the ground. The whole region will not see light for decades. Neither the land of oil nor Israel will ever be the same.’ Iraq is threatening nuclear war against us.”

“It must not be,” Arie said quietly, with his habitual air of ironic distraction, as if he were no longer addressing his two aides: “There have been enough burnt offerings this century to fill the belly of the hungriest god.” He rose to have them leave so that in isolation he would sort through the facts and possibilities.

Rachel’s grey eyes stared at him as she and Simon stood. “Nobody could have foreseen how things are coming together,” she said.

Arie turned calmly to Simon: “We should have foreseen. Keep me informed about anything you notice out of the ordinary, any unexplained details. At once. No business as usual. Reach me at home later, at any time.”

The man and woman left to join the functionaries who filled Arie’s building. He had known the two of them in college during the sixties. Rachel had been a brilliant student, standing out also because she was blonde with thin arms and face and chest tanned mahogany from life on a kibbutz. An émigré in her early teens, she had escaped from the shrinking community of German-Jewish survivors in Frankfurt. Simon had been a young university friend born in Tel Aviv, a Sabra, sharp and supremely dedicated.

They were people Arie trusted, part of the cell he developed at Intelligence. As young men and women, together they had marched into battle in l967, and when he became head of Mossad Special Operations, he surrounded himself with them, assigning them key roles here and around the globe. Each was invaluable for his ruthless courage. Such courage was at the core for him, a solitary and spontaneous strength, apart from all common want or any need to be wanted.

He did not know what the roots of such courage were, but he honored it when it arose. And he found it in Simon and Rachel, in Ezra and Dan and a half dozen others, including his friends Issam and Baruch, who had been assassinated. Arie noted his dispassion at the thought of their deaths. It was a chasm of detachment into which he would march without hesitation. He sat back heavily in his leather chair. Perhaps he was getting soft. The force of his stout body had an immediate impact on his subordinates, yet he wondered if he were becoming fat, a complacent bureaucrat. It was repellent: he would not allow it.

His sun-drenched office was lined with gray metal cabinets and tables laden with files; in one corner by the wall of windows was a computer console with its cable plunging through the floor and down the four stories to the basement. In the middle of the blue carpet were the vinyl couch and chrome chairs that seemed out of place in the cluttered setting. The room’s modernity had been tamed by Arie’s intense will, transforming everything he touched. The office did not look new despite the furniture or the contemporary expanse of window by his steel desk.

In one locked drawer he kept personal papers, a letter his mother had written to him a decade ago, just before she died of wounds from a bomb launched from southern Lebanon and falling on the city center in Nahariyah. It was one more of those unrecorded acts of terror or contrition or grit and bravery which constituted daily life in Israel. Next to the letter was the only weapon Arie kept with him in his office, a souvenir of the concentration camp from which his parents had been liberated months before he was born. His father had given him the German officer’s silver Luger, so that he would not forget. Before he stood to leave, he opened the envelope and reread the ending of her letter.

“This fog thickens. I don’t know where my legs are sometimes; this paper and pen sometimes disappear. I remember the rocket whooshing in. The sun was baking my back. I saw the crystal blue of the Mediterranean stretching beyond the town. Then I heard it rushing in, cracking the air closer. Not all your Intelligence could keep that Palestinian rocket from finding its way to me walking in the burning Nahariya sun. I felt spun into the sky, wheeling, and then slowly circling. Now when you and the others visit, I see you revolve slowly before me. We are all weightless and irradiated with a special light. Not like Mediterranean light at all. Now it turns to fog which closes in on my hand as I write, on my mouth when I speak.”

It was five o’clock on Wednesday, the eighth evening of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah had passed; Friday night and Saturday would bring Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of the calendar.

* * *

These streets did not shelter, the early autumn sun did not warm, and the elegant buildings did not bear ancient witness. The Avenue Foch swept by Ezra, from the Etoile toward the Bois de Boulogne, its mile-long lines of chestnut trees sheltering gilded houses. Already in late September, the leaves of some trees turned red and pale gold.

With his Renault parked two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, he walked to the Etoile on the wide avenue designed by Baron Haussmann. Was Haussmann a Jew?

He rounded the ring of the Etoile, plunging into the crowd flowing over the Champs Elysees this Wednesday afternoon near the Drugstore. A hangout of Americans in Paris. It was an American whom he would meet here in the crowd. This morning the phone had rung in the basement office of the Israeli Embassy; the anonymous caller spoke the blank and slouching English of an American, stony, mumbling through the receiver.

“Please speak up.”

“I have some information for you.”

“Who are you?”

“I have something for you.”

“Who are you?”


There was silence.

“About Iraq.”

“About Iraq,” Ezra repeated. "Naturally."

“I have some information. About the missiles in western Iraqi missiles. I want to meet.”

“I suppose so. In St. Severin, there’s a café at...”

“The Arc of Triumph. Inside the northeast corner at noon. I’ll know you.” The stony voice stopped. The phone had clicked off.

Ezra crossed the wide boulevard of the Champs Elysees and descended into the underground. Traffic rumbled over his head, and a memory suddenly poured through him from years ago: Baghdad is a distant blankness down the highway. He sits in a battered Fiat two miles from Osirak. A tide of slick mirages sweeps over the baked asphalt. He has infiltrated Abu Ibrahim’s cell in Baghdad, and he is Arie’s primary ground contact in Iraq. He watches the F-16 draw an invisible line across the slate-blue sky and instantly release its load of bombs. The domed head of the nuclear installation juts out of the desert, and when the bombs hit, the bowels of the building rumble and burst. A direct hit. Ezra turns the car ignition, and slowly the wheels turn over the burning highway, heading south. He sees a great cloud of fire and sand billow up and out, with flecks of debris—bits of metal, stone, and flesh—reeling in the air all about the compound.

Wind and music swept through the walkway beneath the Etoile, and a group of rock musicians filled the passage with their blaze of rhythm. Ezra’s face stiffened. When he passed musicians with their cases open playing Mozart or Vivaldi, his soul soared into the region of solace and forgetting.

He lumbered up the steps two at a time to join the tourists by the massive legs of the Arc de Triomphe. The cement island swelled with the crowd.

The Champs Elysees swept past into the body of Paris, down to the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries, the Louvre. How fragile the city was, its brilliant vista subject to the compass of a man’s gaze. He walked by the gas flame of the Unknown Soldier, and his feet slapped over the pavement stones commemorating the dead in each world war. All a city offered was its past, its accumulation of deaths. Slowly he moved back toward the stairs to the underground passage. He passed the American rockers again, and he re-emerged on the avenue, crossing to the entrance of the Drugstore.

Ezra sat at the bar in back, elevated above the diners eating their Friday lunches, and he ordered a cognac. His fingers warmed the oval of glass from which he slowly sipped. Arie would insist that the truth be unearthed. No fact or rumor was too trivial to be ignored, the chief of Special Operations always said. Agent and head had known each other first as students at Hebrew University. Five years ago, Arie had become head of the service. Such was his will. He had risen to become Chief while Ezra had roved from one operation to another, chief of none.

He walked back through the glittering hall of the Drugstore and stopped at a bank of phones. In the Embassy, Haim answered.

“Our man didn’t show up. Any word there?”


Haim was six years younger than Ezra, but it was brilliance and temperament, not youth, which gave the younger man’s voice its taciturn purity. He would go far. Haim reminded Ezra of a Mossad hero, Baruch Cohen, who in the nineteen-sixties had exposed the terrorist Carlos. The PLO murdered him some years later.

“Brilliant!” Ezra said, and he imagined his colleague sitting patient and cool behind the steel door of their shared office at the Embassy.

Ezra emerged from The Drugstore into the autumn air on the Etoile. He left his black leather coat unbuttoned, fluttering behind him as he walked back down the Avenue Foch and unlocked the door to his blue car. Safely in, Ezra turned the key to the ignition.

* * *

Loyalty was the key to each operation he conducted. His comrades—the vanguard of the loyal—followed him with a fervor born of the terrible conjunction of despair and hope. Inside the book-lined study of his second-story apartment, this handful of men stood to say goodbye. They were leaving to have dinner with their parents, their brothers, their friends, while he would sit in his apartment reading and thinking and eating his customary portion for dinner—yogurt cheese, olives, and a circle of sesame-crusted bread. Ascetic, disciplined by anger and isolation, Sayeed abjured eating with friends or relatives here in East Jerusalem, even with his mother, who lived twenty minutes away—she was a fine homemaker, a skilled cook, a refined temperament, forced by poverty and her husband’s death to serve an Israeli household, to take orders from less-than-human beings, with their false superiority and cruel power. He looked out the window of his study at the busy avenue below. Scattered vendors sold stacks of sesame rounds and sandwiches as pedestrians hurried home in the darkening dusk through the imprisoning net of Israeli checkpoints spread over their portion of the city.

His four followers planned to meet him surreptitiously at midnight when they would become five vigilantes patrolling the Temple Mount, so that no Israeli could desecrate with impunity the Arab holy place. Ishmael, Ghosh, Mohammed, and Gamel were bound to him by their respect for his learning—in Islam and in revolutionary thought—and for his pragmatic imagination, his capacity to conceive and plan actions that could help end Israel’s grip on their lives. But the five friends were joined together also by their desperation at that grip of oppression, at the Israelis turning the state into a machine of terror, whose sought-for order was the mad order of apartheid and deportation. And Sayeed’s friends also were bound to him above all by a shared faith in the vision he, a stocky and diminutive servant of God, offered of glorious transcendence: not simply the beautiful reward in heaven, but the possibility of transforming life on earth into a new-born state of grace, free of both Israeli oppression and Western materialism.

“How can Palestine escape from this intolerable dictatorship?” he asked them this afternoon. “Our souls will atrophy and expire unless we stop the juggernaut of Israeli oppression. Israel must be given a dire and decisive warning, for it must turn away from the dark abyss of ethnic cleansing, from its genocidal goal. We will strike the fear of God in those who aim to obliterate us. No longer can we tolerate these vicious dogs.”

His listeners murmured their assent, curious what warning Sayeed planned. Yes, he had found a loyal cadre of desperate men, willing to dedicate their lives, even unto death, to ending the Israeli dictatorship. They were neither dissatisfied PLO fighters nor Hamas hangers-on. These were educated, unemployed, devout Muslims who were at the end of their patience. He had found them in coffee houses and in the adult education courses he taught, and he had drawn them into his private study group here a few blocks from the American Embassy. He had taught them about the dead souls of Western culture, for example how the racists Conrad and Eliot had identified the horror of the wasteland in the West, the hollow man, the papier-maché Mephistopheles. Anything, Sayeed told them, was better than the soulless malignancy of Western imperialism. And he had initiated these men—his former students, now his comrades—into a vision of the life of action, taking arms against the sea of struggle. He implied that he had recruited Abu Ganayem, the first suicide martyr, who had taken over Bus 405 a year ago on its way from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and driven it over a cliff above Quyat Ye-Arin; the explosion killed fifteen Israelis and himself and injured scores of others. His comrades sat rapt and asked him what he planned now, what final warning was he engineering. He had refused to answer.

* * *

Haim’s Fiat swerved into the ring of the Etoile, then slowed as it turned onto the Avenue Haussmann. Two blocks ahead there were a cordon of French police and a ring of rope. He nodded to a man about twenty-five, leaning nonchalantly against the trunk of a chestnut tree near where he parked. Like Haim, the man had close-cropped black hair, and both had the olive skin of Sephardic Jews, though the young man by the tree was darker. He was a Tunisian, not a mixture like Haim, whose mother was Sephardic and father Ashkenazi.

“Anything?” Haim asked.


The two slowly strolled to the police blockade. A uniformed Frenchman eyed them and then turned to scan the other passers-by.

The windows of the nearby mansions were shattered. Bits of glass and metal were strewn over the gardens, the sidewalk, the road. Their fences had fallen into gardens, and the iron-railings had twisted into concave skeletons. The ivy on the toppled fences was ashen, and the chestnut trees were blackened on either side above the hole where Ezra had been. The rear of a Mercedes and the front of a Ferrari were burned and torn hulks.

Haim turned abruptly, walking back along the police barrier on the edge of the wide Avenue. Nissim hurried to catch up amid the lunchtime strollers.

Beneath the chestnut tree shedding its leaves in the September breeze, Haim turned to speak to him, and the young man slammed suddenly up against the tree trunk, a hole sliced silently into the brown forehead. Haim, on the sidewalk, crawled in a spray of blood, which covered his face and clothes. Noontime pedestrians screamed and gesticulated above him. Police grabbed him and lifted him from the pavement.

“Name. Identification.”

His mumble hardly audible, Haim handed the officer his papers. He seethed beneath his fey staring face. Wailing police cars began spreading another net of surveillance. Ambulance attendants came to cover Nissim’s head and body with a sheet and bore him away on a stretcher. Haim leaned by his Fiat and spit the gall gathering in his mouth into the Avenue Haussmann.

* * *


“How are you?”

“You’re coming tonight.”

“Elena said, seven-thirty.”

“I’ve called you on impulse.” Arie had the line continually sanitized; nothing could be left to chance. “I want to tell you about something here.”

“About Iraq?”

At seventy-five, Rami had still a full and plangent voice just as when Arie was a child and his father joined the Foreign Service. As a diplomat, his voice was always warm and pliant, willing to change a word here, a point there, until his opponents found themselves agreeing to what Rami all along had sought.

“One of my men in Paris was murdered in a bombing this afternoon. I just heard. There was an attempt on the life of another. An American is involved. It’s possible someone in the CIA.”

“So, it’s happened.”

“It’s happened.” Arie laughed grimly. “Now it’s more than an academic question: Who serves whom? What are they trying to tell us?”

“You’ll clear it up. I’m sure it’s some confusion. Who was killed?” Over the years, he had watched his son create a hierarchy of agents and play the role of brilliant warlord over Mossad’s Special Operations.

“Ezra. Haim Lipsky is in Paris too. He was nearly killed.”

“I know you consider them fine men, but...”

“There are no buts, father. These men and women are more than fine; to protect our nation, they must be absolutely vigilant and firm.”

“Vigilant and firm? Israel can’t live inside an iron curtain, Arie; a nation is not something to be hoarded. We’re a living, growing organism. It’s a matter of overcoming, of becoming. You know a nation’s real power is its ability to grow. Your task is to help—and to understand.”

“For God’s sake!” Arie shouted over the phone. “Don’t use these cliches on me. And German ones, at that! ‘Overcoming!’“

“Yes, that’s echt Deutsche, isn’t it?” Rami said; “but what about ‘vigilant and firm’?”

Always there was the old man’s teasing, his lecturing, and his crippled faith. The son felt opposition but no contempt for his father, who always thought dialectically; for him, there was still one more point, another angle not to be ignored. Finally Arie’s quiet voice broke the silence. “Whatever you say, father. We’ll see you at seven-thirty, no?”

“It will work out, Arie.”

Rami lowered the receiver into its cradle and sat still in his apartment near the Old City. From the side table he lifted a small pot of thick black oriental coffee to pour himself a cup. When his son first entered intelligence service, Arie had been all vigor and confidence, having already risen to the top of the Interior Ministry. And in his first years at Mossad, his son had helped plan the attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Rami recalled the day he and the world learned of its success. “Everyone, including the Arabs, is glad we took out the reactor,” Arie had said.

“It’s ironic,” Rami said, “Iraq is the site of Eden: Sumeria. You know the Hebrews emigrated from there. So too did the Palestinians.”

Now Rami lifted a cup of the sweet, black liquid and sipped. He looked out the barred windows of his apartment to the narrow, sunny passageway outside. His son disagreed with him about Israel, for Arie was prepared to give up on the open, imperfect process of politics. His son believed in the purity of hierarchy, in the small cell of chosen individuals, each of whom would protect and defend the integrity of the state. Born in the months after Auschwitz, Arie was an issue of the camp itself, and the white haired survivor felt deeply implicated. What would happen to his son, to Israel itself, this stony, star-bound land? No language existed to tell their need. Words belied and cheapened. “Yet I must try to tell him once more,” he said aloud, and his voice reverberated in the dusty motes of light filtering through the old apartment.

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