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Regent Square author tackles 1946 Jerusalem bombing

| Friday, May 6, 2016, 8:12 p.m.
Author Stewart O'Nan is interviewed in Regent Square Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Author Stewart O'Nan is interviewed in Regent Square Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.

On July 22, 1946, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed by the Irgun, a militant Zionist organization. The attack on the headquarters of the British Mandatory in Palestine killed 91 people and injured 46.

Viewed as a pivotal event in Israel's early history, the bombing is still deemed a terrorist attack by the British. In 2006, British authorities protested a ceremony at the hotel attended by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commemorating the 60 anniversary of the bombing.

The King David Hotel attack informs Stewart O'Nan's new novel, “City of Secrets” ($22, Viking). The Regent Square resident calls the event a “watershed moment in 20th-century political violence, not to mention terrorism.”

“Having grown up in the '60s and '70s, it had me thinking a lot about the moral question of means versus end,” O'Nan says, “and how do you justify that with yourself.”

The vessel for the moral quandary in “City of Secrets” is Brand, a Latvian Jew and Holocaust survivor, who lost his wife and family during World War II. As a refugee in Palestine — where the British have set quotas on the number of Jewish immigrants — he's provided a new identity and a job driving a taxi by a paramilitary organization, the Haganah. Brand, who falls in love with Eva, a former Latvian actress now working as an escort, is conflicted about the tasks he is assigned before committing himself to the Jewish fight for independence.

O'Nan vividly re-creates Jerusalem's alleys and byways as Brand drives his taxi through the city. It's a remarkable feat given that the author has never been to Jerusalem.

But even if O'Nan had visited Israel, the landscape he creates for “City of Secrets” would have eluded him.

“Like the L.A. of ‘West of Sunset' (his previous novel), this world is mostly gone,” he says. “There has been so much development there. There are parts of the Old City that probably look like they did back then, but all of the suburbs have changed. The road maps have changed. … I tried to find a lot of contemporary maps from 1945, 1946 — and was lucky to find some tour guides that various soldiers used.”

O'Nan read writers of the period to get a feel for the Middle East during the era, notably Graham Greene. He'd previously read Raymond Chandler in preparation for “West of Sunset,” a fictional take on the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald that shares an emotional ballast with “City of Secrets.”

“Here are these lonely men (Brand and Fitzgerald) who are stuck in these places that are not their homes, and they have to find a way to survive,” O'Nan says. “They hope to go on, even though they have these great, great losses. It's not simply about endurance, which a lot of the other books are about, but in finding a new hope, a new way to go forward, and creating a new life, and, in a way, a new person out of yourself. That question that Fitzgerald asks in his note for ‘The Last Tycoon,' which is ‘There are no second acts in American lives,' what is that second act for the rest of the world?”

For Brand, that second act involves compromising his principles in order to serve the revolution. When the Haganah joins forces with the Irgun and the Stern Gang, another Zionist paramilitary organization, the taxi driver becomes directly involved in bombings and kidnappings.

While Brand is terrified by some of the events he witnesses, he also finds a purpose that he has lacked since being freed from a concentration camp.

“In a way, it's freeing,” O'Nan says. “He knows he is beholden to the people who have set him up with the cab and with the identity. He knows there's duty involved. The question is, how far does he have to go to do that duty? By the time he reaches a point where he doesn't want to do it, it's well too late.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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