Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Clash of Cultures

The Mandelbaum GateThe Mandelbaum Gate 
by Muriel Spark

"He walked round the city until at last, fumbling in his picket for his diplomatic pass, he came to the Mandelbaum Gate, hardly a gate at all, but a piece of street between Jerusalem and Jerusalem, flanked by two huts, and called by that name because a house at the other end once belonged to a Mr. Mandelbaum." (p 369)

My introduction to the writing of Muriel Spark came through reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (after having enjoyed the film version). While I enjoyed this read I had not read any other novels by her recently so I was not sure what to expect upon picking up The Mandelbaum Gate. I am told that it is in some ways not typical, though her books do cover a variety of geographical locations and types of character. It is longer than most, if not all, of her other books as she tends to write quite short novels, and the economy of her prose must in part account for that.

The book is set in 1961 in Jerusalem but it is a 'historical novel' only in the sense that like that genre it is firmly set in a particular time and place. It was published in 1965, so Spark was writing only shortly after the events take place, and was therefore discussing relatively current events. The Mandelbaum Gate divides Israel, or Occupied Palestine, depending on your political viewpoint, from Jordan. The political divide takes no account of the sites holy to Christians, and so pilgrims - such as Barbara Vaughan, one of the main characters in the book - are hampered by having to pass through the gate (and needing proof of baptism to do so) if they are to see some of the locations associated with the life and miracles of Christ. Barbara's situation is complicated by the fact that she is half Roman Catholic and half Jewish - the latter being reason enough not to mean that she would be in danger of being arrested as an Israeli spy should she be found on the Jordanian side of the Gate.

Barbara is staying on the Israeli side, in a hotel which is also the residence of a British diplomat Freddy Hamilton. Freddy's job at the Embassy is unclear, though he does describe himself at one point as a filing clerk. He seems to be more than this, but he doesn't seem to do very much work at all in fact, and appears remarkably naive and ineffective in his understanding of the difficulties Barbara will face if she pursues her desire to see the holy sites on the other side of the Gate. Most importantly, for this reader, Freddy is a poet with an artistic turn to his mind as evidenced by the opening of the novel where we are introduced to him in the first paragraph:
"Sometimes, instead of a letter to thank his hostess, Freddy Hamilton would compose a set of formal verses - rondeaux, redoubles, villanelles, rondels or Sicilian octaves - to express his thanks neatly. It was part of his modest nature to do this. He always felt he had perhaps been boring during his stay, and it was one's duty in life to be agreeable. Not so much at the time as afterwards, he felt it keenly on his conscience that he had said no word between the soup and the fish when the bright talk began; he felt at fault in retrospect of the cocktail hours when he had contributed nothing but the smile for which he had been renowned in his pram and, in the following fifty years, elsewhere." (p 3)

Alongside these two main characters are a number of dependent players on both sides of the Gate, including the Cartwrights, Freddy's British friends on the Jordan side with whom he regularly stays; the Ramdez family - ostensibly running a travel agency, but using this as a cover for various other activities - Abdul, the son, teaching Freddy Arabic on the Israeli side, Joe, the father, a rather uninviting character running a brothel on the Jordanian side, where Suzi, his daughter, eventually takes Barbara when they smuggle her through to Jordan. Freddy seems at first attracted to Abdul, but transfers his affection to Suzi, who resembles her brother closely - they are described as beautiful, dark skinned but blue-eyed. It is Suzi's resemblance to Abdul that seems at first to attract Freddy to her. There is also Alexandros, lover of Suzi and owner of a gift shop; Saul Ephraim, archaeologist and unofficial tour guide for Barbara; Rupert Gardnor, colleague of Freddy, and his wife Ruth; and hardly appearing and yet important to the whole thing, Ricky (Miss Rickward), headmistress of the school in which Barbara teaches in England, and Harry Clegg, Barbara's fiance, and archaeologist working in the Dead Sea area.

The story is primarily about Barbara's attempt to gain access to the biblical sites on the other side - the Arab side - of the Mandelbaum Gate, but of course it is really about religion, politics, faith and the complexity of life. No character is entirely clear to us, no one's motivations are entirely certain, no one is entirely virtuous or unvirtuous, with the possible exception of Joe Ramdez. The story is firmly set in a specific place and time with the Eichmann trial occurring in the background indirectly connected through a relation of Barbara. There is also Nasser's Post Office, Jewish cousins in Golders Green, and Freddy's amnesia among the many events that transpire in this detailed but not too busy book.

What is typical of Spark in this book is her style of writing, which is precise yet comfortable. It invites the reader to relax and enjoy details that, while not inconsiderable all of which seem to move the story forward, fill in details that help make sense of the plot without impeding any suspense that has built up. There is also a sense of humor and wit amid the very serious issues, a wonderful use of repetition and of moving the narrative backwards and forwards in time, a sort of helix effect of strands spiraling around each other, with the author in complete control - this is often enough to make me laugh at its cleverness, as well as the witty elements in the writing. She always seems to invest much vigor in her writing which is taut but with a sort of panache. Through a solid foundation--the structure allows the novel to grow slowly but not too slow--the story gradually comes to a satisfying denouement.

There are motifs such as Freddy's attitude (such as it is, it takes some of the edge off any sense of danger), and biblical references like this phrase from the Book of Revelation - "Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth." Both Freddy and Barbara independently decide that people should really not quote the Scriptures at one, and yet that phrase keeps coming back. It seems what the novel is all about - the clash of British culture, where one's religion is no one else's business and yet of vital importance in various ways, with Middle Eastern culture, where it is a matter of life and death, and one cannot afford to be lukewarm. One moment that this becomes more clear is when Freddy and Suzi are taking Barbara, wrapped in the clothes of an Arab servant and lying low in the car, through part of Jordan, and Freddy thinks they will all feel better if they stop for a pink gin before lunch. That is typical of Freddy, but also indicative of the overall theme of the novel.
The novel ends, wonderfully, with Freddy exploring Old Jerusalem and describing, for the first time in the novel, the actual Mandelbaum Gate--a fitting conclusion for this fine story.

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Brian Joseph said...

The variety of cultures and belief systems that the described plot presents indeed offers lots of opportunities for exploration. I think that it is one of the roles of fiction to set up such situations in order to play in.

Sounds like a very good book.

James said...

Yes, I agree that fiction often explores opportunities presented by the differences in culture and other aspects of life.
This is a novel I read for our Thursday evening book group and I look forward to the reaction of the rest of the group.