Tortured soul: interrogator’s moral dilemmas are Israel’s

Limassol

Yishai Sarid (translated from Hebrew by Barbara Harshav)

Europa Editions, £6.99

E-book: $12.99

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

Short-listed for this year’s prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Limassol is a small but compulsively readable novel by Yishai Sarid, perfectly pitched in action and prose, and deeply thought-provoking.

The intriguing plot and characters draw deserved comparison with John le Carre’s masterful 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but this is no pale derivative.

After symptoms of a breakdown, Limassol’s unnamed first-person narrator, a high-ranking Israeli secret serviceman, is taken off his interrogation duties and placed on special assignment.

Posing as a novice writer, he must ingratiate himself into the life and affections of his tutor, a once-famous and still-beautiful novelist, Daphna, who, for lack of money and a withering of talent, now teaches. She is sweet-hearted, but with a life in ruins and a drug-addicted son under the death sentence of a major dealer. Yet she is not the narrator’s target, but an intermediary, the only way of gaining access to her elderly friend, Hani, a dying Palestinian poet. Hani’s son is a terrorist, high on the wanted list of several countries. Hiding in Syria, he is believed to be planning an attack. With suicide bombers tearing up the streets and synagogues of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it is imperative that he be lured out of hiding and eliminated. As the story builds, the action shifts away from Israel, and Limassol, the Cypriot port city that lends its name to the novel’s title, provides the stage for a fitting and thoroughly shocking climax.

Such careful storytelling provokes us into contemplating the horrors committed and suffered by both sides, and leads us toward certain fundamental quandaries. What is betrayal and is it ever justified? And how much should a man sacrifice for his country, and how much for love? The answers rarely come easily, but these are questions worth asking. While the plot has the expected convolutions of an impressive espionage thriller, the superb characterisations raise Limassol above the standard fare. These are broken lives, struggling to survive in a fraught and ancient corner of the world and even the minor players are finely drawn. But the narrator is a wonderful and utterly human creation. An interrogator and torturer, but always in service to the state, his devotion has had a devastating effect on his mind and soul, and also on his marriage.

And yet, for all his monstrous actions and his ideological justification of his treachery, there are also genuine displays of compassion, kindness and even, against so many odds, a headlong falling into love.

With such provocative and, at times, controversial writers as Amos Oz, David Grossman, Etgar Keret and AB Yehoshua all working at the peak of their powers, the current golden age of Israeli literature shows no signs of abating.

Now, with the publication of Limassol, his captivating second novel, Yishai Sarid pushes himself to the fore as yet another voice worthy of the world’s attention. He has penned a small, sturdy triumph.


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