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Truth, it is said, is often stranger than fiction. The converse this adage is another that states that in fiction one often finds the truth. When one is dealing with history, both of these can be true and usually are. This is equally true when it comes to politics and war. And sometimes love. Richard North Patterson’s 2007 novel Exile provides pertinent examples of all of these possibilities. Set in the very recent past, the novel opens with the story of a love affair between an essentially secular US Jewish man and a Palestinian woman during his last semester at Harvard Law School. The affair itself is complicated from the beginning because the woman, Hana Arif, is already betrothed to another Palestinian through an arrangement between the two Palestinians families. While the reader considers the stories of Hana and David Wolfe’s interludes of lovemaking, the politics and history of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples make their appearance. Mr. Wolfe has little connection to his people’s past while Ms. Arif lives with her people’s history as an essential part of her being. Despite David’s best attempts to force a transcendence of that history and to convince Hani to stay with him instead of going back to Palestine and marry the spouse already chosen for her, Saeb Khalid, he fails and leaves Cambridge. Meanwhile, the movements of two suicide bombers are related as they make their way to San Francisco thirteen years later.
The rest of the narrative moves ahead thirteen years. Wolfe is a successful defense attorney in San Francisco. He becomes engaged to a Jewish woman whose father was in Auschwitz and whose history defines his torment and his life. In addition, he has staked his emotional survival and his people’s survival to the state of Israel. So has his daughter, Carole Short. Wolfe, quintessentially American, still doesn’t understand what he obviously considers an unhealthy obsession. Of course, the Short’s connection to their history and the suffering of the Jewish people reminds Wolfe of Ms. Arif’s similar connection. Indeed, the words the Shorts use to describe their need to define their lives through the fate of Israel can’t help but remind Wolfe of Arif’s similar need to define hers through the fate of Palestine. As fate would have it, the Prime Minister of Israel is visiting San Francisco and the Shorts, being respected embers of the city’s Jewish upper echelons, are hosting a dinner party for the man. This isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon, mind you, but a reasonably progressive Israeli politician who is negotiating with Fatah to trade land and prisoners for peace and is also promising some kind of return for those Palestinians still living who were driven from their homes by the Israelis in 1947 and 1948. Of course, these ideas are not popular with certain Israelis and certain Palestinians, so the threat of assassination is omnipresent.
Of course, the Prime Minister is murdered and a bomber is arrested. The day before his murder, Wolfe received a call from Hani Arif, who was traveling with her husband Saeb and daughter Munira. Saeb has traded in his Marxist ideology of his Harvard days for a fundamentalist Islamist one. Arif has moderated her views, yet she resigned from the team negotiating with Israel because she lacked trust in their words after settlements were built in the West Bank when the Israelis promised none would be constructed.
Not long after the assassination, Hani Arif and her family are forbidden to leave the country because the FBI believes Arif is connected to the case. She calls Wolfe and asks him to be their attorney. Despite misgivings, he agrees. Not long afterwards, Arif is arrested as the mastermind of the assassination and Wolfe continues to serve as her attorney. He discovers that his feelings for her remain although now they are mixed with misgivings as to their guilt and her motivations. His fiancée and her father, along with most of the rest of his friends and acquaintances begin to distance themselves from him.
This is when the novel begins to move into a realm where truths are defined by one’s connections to the past and the nature of that past. A realm where there are no certitudes except those held by individuals that refuse to acknowledge the certitudes of their enemies. It is a place where people’s commitments to the past prevent them from seeing the present clearly and thereby define their actions in the future. The history of the Jewish Holocaust is as much a part of this realm as is the story of the Palestinian diaspora under the guns of the Israelis and their US supporters. Wolfe’s journey into this world where everything is true and everything is false is defined by two element–his refusal to let Arif die at the hands of the state and the embers of his love for her that still smolder in his heart. His journey takes him to Israel and the West Bank. It leads him into the netherworlds of Israeli and Palestinian politics and their military components. He finds himself acting as both attorney and spy and witnesses death and despair beyond any thing he might have imagined. There are many twists and turns in this story, some expected and some quite surprising, and all of them work.
In Exile, Patterson presents the hatreds, fears, and the conspiracies of humans and history that abound in the Middle East. His descriptions of Wolfe’s journey into the world of zealots and politicians portrays the consequences of the truth of true believers and their intransigence. His primary protagonist Wolfe has his own truths based on assumptions that are not those of the extremists on either side, but are instead those held by many (if not most) US residents. They are not extreme except in their inability to understand the assumptions of those they consider to be extremists. This makes them extreme in their desire for what they consider to be moderation. At the same time, they tend to give more credence to Israel’s claims than they do to those made by the Palestinians. Underneath it all is a fear of Iran and its intentions. This uniquely red, white and blue understanding, claims Patterson again and again through the voices of his characters, can be reached only by those who erase their past as soon as it is created. It’s a dangerous understanding, too, especially when the power of that red, white and blue nation tries to force a similar understanding on nations and people whose history began centuries before its own. The current war in Iraq is a prime example of the results of this understanding which understands little.
This is a book about women, too. Many of the most interesting characters are Patterson’s female ones. Hani Arif is a complicated woman whose politics, history and loves define who she is and how she acts. Her friend Nisreen is equally so. Her cousin Sausan lives in her mother’s village in Israel, the Muslim daughter of a Christian and grandfather of a Jew who can not live on the other side of Israel’s barrier because of her heritage. These women are some of the strongest personalities in this novel. Transcending the restrictions of their culture and the scandalous whispers of their peers, they live lives defined more by who they are than by what they aren’t.
Legal and political thrillers abound on the best seller lists these days. Mr. Patterson is no stranger to those lists, either. On occasion, a book will come along in this genre that transcends a well woven story of deceit, dealmaking, and conflict that make this type of novel such a good read. When that happens, the novel in question is no longer just a good read. It is an exploration of the human condition and a discussion of humanity’s different way of perceiving that condition. Many of John LeCarre’s works exist in this stratum, as do the novels of Neil Gordon and Graham Greene (among others). Mr. Patterson’s Exile should be included as well.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com