Book Review: “The Red Balcony” — A Novel About the Muddled Predicament of the Diaspora Jew
By David Mehegan
The plot of The Red Balcony ticks along briskly. Jonathan Wilson is a gifted narrator and scene-maker.
The Red Balcony by Jonathan Wilson. Schocken Books. 260 pp. $27
It is probably just as well, possibly a definite good thing, that a work of fiction is difficult to easily categorize. Publishers Weekly describes Jonathan Wilson’s fast-moving tale of love, murder, politics, and 20th-century Middle Eastern history as an “engrossing legal drama.” One back-cover blurber calls it a mystery, while another labels it historical fiction. It is all of those things, though none exactly. It actually might be something more: a kind of plaintive background music, an exploration of Jewish misplacement and peregrination.
In the midst of today’s divisive, possibly explosive, struggle within Israeli society over the values of religion, democracy, and nationalism, it is instructive to recall how recently there was no Israeli society and no generally accepted picture of a Jewish state in historic Palestine.
The Red Balcony takes place in 1933, about halfway through the British Mandate for Palestine. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, a vote by the League of Nations allowed Britain to take over administration of the former Ottoman territory. It was intended not to be a colonization, but a temporary arrangement that would eventuate in a “national home” for the Jewish people, in Palestine, as envisioned by the British 1917 Balfour Declaration. The Jewish population at the time was vastly outnumbered by Arab Palestinians, and Balfour was vague both as to the definition of “national home” and its geographical outline. Different Zionist groups, in Palestine as well as Europe and the United States, entertained competing visions, while Arab communities in and near Palestine fiercely opposed them all.
The Red Balcony opens shortly after the triumph of Hitler’s Nazi party in Germany. In the opening scene, the Nazi flag is newly hung beside the Union Jack from the balcony of a Jerusalem hotel, as well as over the German consulate. In the novel and in history, a centrist Zionist faction, frantic to rescue the Jews of Germany, has hatched a deal with the Nazis to allow thousands of German Jews to exit Palestine in return for a commitment to export German goods there. Per head payments would be made as well, with cash raised in the United States. The deal was negotiated by Zionist activist Haim Arlosoroff.
Arab groups opposed the facilitation of Jewish immigration. Equally opposed to the deal was a rightist Zionist faction called the Revisionists. To them, having anything to do with the monster Hitler was unconscionable, and they regarded the Arlosoroff scheme as treason to the Jewish cause. Newly back from Europe after the negotiations, on June 16, 1933, Arlosoroff was shot and killed at night on a Tel Aviv beach. His wife was the only witness.
As all this is history, it does not betray Wilson’s plot to add that no one was convicted of Arlosoroff’s murder. The case was never solved. Both Revisionists and Arab Palestinians hated the German-Jewish emigration scheme, so more than one individual or group would have had a motive. There might have been no political motive; one story is that Arlosoroff was killed while resisting an attempted rape of his wife.
In Wilson’s story, Jewish Briton Ivor Castle, a young Oxford law graduate and son of a prominent British barrister, arrives in Jerusalem to assist in the defense of Stavsky and Rosenblatt, two Russian Jewish immigrants accused of the crime. Castle is indifferent to Palestine and the Zionist cause: “As far as Ivor was concerned, the ancient homeland of the Jewish people might just as well have been the Outer Hebrides.” Indeed, he seems uncommitted to anything in particular. The chief defense counsel is distinguished king’s counsel Phineas Baron, socially and politically connected, also British and Jewish but Jerusalem-based. Colorful and brassy, he too is cynically indifferent to all factions.
Romance enters the story when Castle is assigned to interview Tsiona Kerem, a beautiful Jewish Bohemian artist who had been at a café where Stavsky and Rosenblatt had been the night of the murder. She might have seen (and possibly sketched) them. If she had, depending on the time, she might provide an alibi. Castle immediately conceives a passion for Tsiona, sleeps with her after a party at her flat, and for the rest of the novel cares little for anything other than possession of her. She is mysterious, emotionally reserved, and soon Castle is disturbed by hints of another lover offstage.
Unlike in what Americans call a mystery and Britons call a detective novel, the protagonist of The Red Balcony is no Poirot, no fail-safe genius who unties all knots with clever ratiocination. Castle is more of a clueless schmo, like Holly Martins in Graham Greene’s Third Man, stumbling about with little sense of what is going on. What’s more, he has not much talent for finding out. “He hadn’t come to build a state,” we read, “only to dismantle his own torpidity, or find a person, not a country, he might love.” His father, a friend of Baron, had asked the great man to take him on as a favor. Castle’s actions in the case are clumsy, such as sleeping with a witness and withholding material facts from his boss. All he really cares about is Tsiona. Since she proves to be central to the action, his involvement with her perforce eventually reveals all.
The atmospherics of the novel are vivid and pungent. Town and rural scenes in and around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed, and Jaffa, the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, the Hill of Evil Counsel, Rishon LeZion, the sounds and smells of the country, are conjured in fine detail. (Keep your Mideast map handy.) The human atmosphere invokes Greeneland in another way: the antiheroism of the hero. Like many of Greene’s protagonists, Castle has decent impulses but no strong political, moral, or religious framework. What he does have is a ruminative bent, which serves the underlying theme: the predicament of the diaspora Jew who feels nowhere at home, “the muddle of his identity.”
Soon after Castle is caught in a bloody Arab riot against the British:
… that other sensation came over him, the one that attached itself throughout all his university years: that he was in the wrong place, that the countryside he loved, the delights of bramble and thicket, rain-soaked meadows, profusions of wildflowers, and birds singing all the way through Oxfordshire and the college building he admired … were marvelous attributes of a county and a country that barely tolerated him, and if so only as an interloping guest. He wanted to lay a claim, but he couldn’t…. Would he have felt more comfortable if he’d grown up here in this parched landscape with its sudden intrusion of beauty, a place that on this awful morning had filled with dust and blood? The answer was almost certainly no.
The plot of The Red Balcony ticks along briskly. Jonathan Wilson is a gifted narrator and scene-maker. The dialogue consists almost entirely of complete grammatical sentences, which some readers might find implausible but which are always clear and would transfer easily to a screenplay. (I would expect a film option to be sold if it hasn’t been already.)
Still, in this fast-paced and readable book, there are, to my taste, too many (I counted six) coincidental public encounters between Castle and other main characters. Each of these accidents advances the action. Such things happen in life, but six in one novel seems a stretch. Still, perhaps this was unavoidable. If you’re going to make a complicated plot work in a two-hour play within a proscenium, and also keep it close to historical fact, perhaps there has to be the occasional fortuitous meeting.
Since we know — but the people of The Red Balcony do not — of the continental horror to come, the centrist-Revisionist struggle over getting a small number of affluent Jews out of Germany seems especially poignant and pathetic. That Jews could kill each other over the best way to save other Jews is a painful irony.
Near the end of the novel, Castle observes that Zionists were fond of the springtime return of migratory birds — cranes, storks, starlings — as a metaphor for the return of the exiles. However, the birds “suggested something else to Ivor, that ingathering and scattering was perhaps a necessary and perpetual rhythm of Jewish life.” Like a man who craves the countryside when he is in a city, and vice versa, Castle suspects, the Jew “is only truly happy on the train traveling between the two locations.”
This picture of dislocated Jews on a train is for us a dreadful allusion to a fate unimaginable in 1933 to one of Castle’s generation. One trusts that a decade later, he would be less diffident. Wilson has written vividly about British mandate Palestine during World War II, notably in his 1995 novel The Hiding Room, and I would read with interest a novel of that time and place in which an older and perhaps wiser Ivor Castle returns.
David Mehegan is the former Book Editor of the Boston Globe. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.