Sunday, April 10, 2016

Reading Exodus by Leon Uris: Part 1

After seeing that PCG's Ron Fraser twice approvingly mentioned the novels of Leon Uris while discussing the State of Israel I decided it was time to take a look at his 1958 novel, Exodus. On the face of it seems absurd for Ron Fraser to bring up a fictional novel that was first published in 1958 while discussing current events. But perhaps looking at this novel will be informative.

Exodus by Leon Uris is a historical novel discussing events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, particularly the Exodus incident in which British personnel shot dead Jewish refugees trying to get into Palestine.

Let's take a look.

The Palestinian Heroes

In this novel the Jews in Palestine are Palestinians.
Ari Ben Canaan ... entered the room.... The Palestinian was a big man, well over six feet and well built. (Chapter 6, p. 21.) 
Another Jewish character is introduced with these words.
Zev Gilboa, also a Palestinian Palmachnik.... (Chapter 8, p. 40.)
Afterwards Ari is described with the following words.
It seemed to the Cypriot that the big Palestinian.... (Chapter 8, p. 42.)
Today some Israeli pundits condemn the very name Palestine and try to slur the name. Sometimes such persons associate the name with the Emperor Hadrian's cataclysmic and bloody suppression of the Jewish revolt of 132-5. However cognate versions of the name dates back as early as 1170 BC.

I wonder if it reads like that in Hebrew.

When this novel was published in 1958 Palestinian nationalism was not particularly prominent and consequently the Palestinians in and of themselves were not viewed as much of a threat to the State of Israel compared with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. That is no longer the case.

The Jewish Prisoners

In one scene three characters working to free refugees so that they are able to go to Palestine witness detained Jewish refugees being shipped in trucks to a detention facility in Cyprus. Quite understandably they are distressed and furious at the sight of follow Jews being treated in this way especially after the horrors of the Holocaust.
The lorries passed one by one. The three men could see the jam of tattered, ragged misery. They were beaten people--at the end of the line--dazed, withered, exhausted. ...
David Ben Ami's hands were tight fists and his teeth were clenched in a face livid with helpless rage. Mandria wept openly. Only Ari Ben Canaan showed no emotion. (Chapter 6, p. 23.) 
Later David and Ari visited the detention facility.
By now David was seething. He berated the British for the subhuman conditions of the camps, for the fact that German prisoners of war on Cyprus had a greater degree of freedom, for the lack of food and medical care, and just for the general gross injustice. (Chapter 8, p. 36.)
The protagonists yearned for those detainees to be free.

"It Never Changes"

Here Ari and David are talking and David asks Ari how things are back home, meaning Palestine.
"Things at home? The same as always. Bombings, shootings. Exactly as it has been every day since we were children. It never changes. Every year we come to a crisis which is sure to wipe us out--then we go to another crisis worse than the last. Home is home," Ari said. (Chapter 6, p. 24.) 
Strangely there is no sense of curiosity about this state of affairs. Why is it like this? People do not just bomb and shoot at others. What is going on here? In this statement such questions seem to have never entered Ari's imagination.

This also ignores the fact that Palestine was paradoxically rather peaceful during World War II. Following the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-9 armed violence abated. However it revived again after World War II had ended.

"Arab Psychology"

The following passage describes a clandestine organization within a British detention facility for Jewish refugees trying to get to Palestine.
At night the playground was transformed into a military training camp for refugees. The classrooms were turned from standard schools into indoctrination centers in Arab psychology, Palestine geography, tactics .... (Chapter 8, p. 38.)
"Arab psychology"? What is that?

The Extremely Clever Ari Ben Canaan

When I started this I was planning to discuss political things. But to my surprise it seems the hero of this novel, Ari Ben Canaan, has a flaw: He is flawless. Or at least too flawless. The supporting characters compliment him and talk of him as an indomitable and prodigiously hard working man. It is sometimes stated that he is too unemotional but it feels unconvincing as a criticism of Ari.

While flawless persons are fine in non-fictional settings, in fiction a flawless character is flawed and static. If a prominent character in a fictional story should happen to be flawless then why should anyone read such a story? When a crisis occurs in the story such a character character effortlessly solves the problem. So the reader anticipates that there will be no sense of uncertainty about that character. There can be no character development if the character happens to be flawless already. I suspect this applies to Ari Ben Canaan.

Evidence of this tendency may be seen in how the author makes a minor character such as Mandria describe Ari in an adulatory way as "a man of action" and bestowed with "seemingly superhuman stamina."
Mandria was elated. What a man of action Ari Ben Canaan was! Find a ship! Find a forger! Get me a uniform and a driver! Life was so exciting since Mossad and Palmach had come to Cyprus.... (Chapter 6, p. 22.)
[Mandria] could not help admiring Ari for his absolute concentration and seemingly superhuman stamina. He must, Mandria thought, be a tremendously dedicated man--but ... [he] seemed to show no traces of human emotion. (Chapter 8, p. 42.)
So Ari is a superhuman?

One might hope that the author only made Mandria so adulatory towards Ari. This is not so.

Later Ari proposes a plan to another character, Mark Parker, about a plan concerning the refugees held by the British authorities. The author writes the following describing Mark's reaction while discussing this plan with Ari.
Mark frowned. It was daring, audacious, even fantastic. Yet--there was an admirable simplicity about it. ... Ari seemed to have considered all the angles. Yes, there was a possibility of a sensational series of stories. Now Mark tried to weigh the odds of Ari's wild scheme. There was no better than a fifty-fifty chance of success. Mark took into account the fact that Ari was an extremely clever man.... (pp. 49-50.)
Ari is not just clever or even very clever. He is "extremely clever". He is "daring, audacious, even fantastic" as well.

Further evidence of the overly flawless manner of Ari may be seen when Ari meets Mark Parker and Kitty Fremont.
"Ari Ben Canaan," Kitty said. "What an odd name."
"It is Hebrew, Mrs. Fremont. It means 'Lion, Son of Canaan.'" (p. 47.)
The author has named the hero of this novel after himself.

I hope this may change later. Fortunately none of the other characters are so flawless. But I fear that it will be like this through the entire 600 page novel.

To be continued...

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