Mon January 29, 2007
In this novel, Exile, Patterson truly becomes a writer of international thrillers. The fictional Prime Minister of Israel, Amos Ben-Aron, is touring the United States to promote a peace plan which will be equitable to Palestinians and Israelis both.
By Don Noble
Richard North Patterson has got to be the only fifth-generation Californian ever to be considered an Alabama writer. Patterson was practicing law in Birmingham when he took a workshop with the Tennessee novelist Jesse Hill Ford, author of The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, and began writing novels.
Patterson's scope as a novelist has steadily widened. Early novels were more or less domestic: did the husband kill his wife? Then his protagonists became national figures, Supreme Court justices and even a President of the United States.
In this novel, Exile, Patterson truly becomes a writer of international thrillers. The fictional Prime Minister of Israel, Amos Ben-Aron, is touring the United States to promote a peace plan which will be equitable to Palestinians and Israelis both. In exchange for a lasting peace, illegal Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank will be removed, and the new borders will not snatch excessive amounts of Palestinian land. But in San Francisco, Ben-Aron is assassinated, blown up by two Arabs in a suicide bombing. Lou Dobbs will be gratified to see that these two bombers came across the border, quite easily, from Mexico.
One bomber survives. When interrogated, he names Hana Arif, a Palestinian woman, as the mastermind. Hana calls a Jewish-American lawyer, David Wolfe, to defend her, because she and David had been secret lovers at Harvard Law. Thus it begins. David and Hana, as they say on television, still have feelings for each other. David's fiancee, Carole, is Jewish, and her father is a Holocaust survivor. She cannot understand why David would defend a Palestinian killer. David feels that Hana is innocent, and begins his complex investigations. Not only did radical Palestinians want Ben-Aron dead, so did radical Israelis, who saw him as a traitor, giving away land that had been deeded to them by God, the "real estate agent" in the sky. Both sides have an interest in having Hana imprisoned for life, and the matter forgotten. Potential witnesses have very brief lifespans.
Patterson did a mountain of research for this book. He has read so widely he should be granted a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies. He also interviewed dozens of really important Jewish and Arab figures, including Shimon Perez, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, and even leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade. He spent time in the West Bank and literally risked his life to get the background and context for this novel right. What Patterson experienced and learned, his protagonist Wolfe experiences and learns.
After the powerful West Bank scenes, the novel ends with Patterson's forte, the intrinsically dramatic courtroom trial.
A novel like Exile is rarely attempted in American letters, especially since 9/11: without taking sides, he tells both sides of the story. Palestinians were brutally murdered in refugee camps and are humiliated every day at checkpoints in the West Bank. The Israeli Defense Forces have guided missiles and F-16's. Palestinians feel that suicide bombing is one of the few weapons available to them. Israelis feel that the Jewish homeland is theirs by virtue of promises made by the Old Testament God, that the Holocaust entitles Jews to a nation, and that they did make the desert bloom. They will not give back homes and olive groves seized in the 1948 war. And to be fair, we are not returning upstate New York to the Iroquois, either.
Patterson faced two challenges here. First, he had to imbed all this twentieth-century background and history into the novel without slowing or crippling the narrative. The book is, nevertheless, too long, despite having suspense, intrigue, explosions, and a renascent romance. Second, few want to hear the Moslem side of things, at all. Recently, a number of members of the Board of Directors of the Carter Center resigned in protest after President Carter published Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. If people feel free to chastise a former president, what will be the fate of a mere novelist?
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.