Trouble seems to follow novelist Daniel Silva like a chase car, hot on the trail of his favorite protagonist, the globe-trotting Mossad agent and ace art restorer Gabriel Allon. In The Fallen Angel—Silva’s latest thriller, released this week (HarperCollins)—trouble follows Allon home to Israel itself.
In addition to being fun, Silva’s novels have the virtue of being prescient: Several key developments in the realms of diplomacy and espionage have been presaged, if not outright predicted, in Silva’s work—a trend the author obliquely attributes to his “good contacts” inside various intelligence agencies. Take, for instance, the moment in Portrait of a Spy—written in 2011, during the throes of the Arab Spring—when Gabriel falls into the hands of arch-terrorist Rashid al-Husseini. “The Arab world is changing,” Gabriel defiantly declares. “Your time has passed.” Rashid, smirking, lays down the gauntlet. “Surely, Allon, a man such as yourself is not so naive as to think this great Arab Awakening is going to produce Western-style democracy in the Middle East,” he retorts. “The revolt might have started with the students and the secularists, but the Brothers will have the last word.” Sure enough, with last month’s election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s next president, the Brothers have indeed prevailed.
In hindsight, Rashid’s (and Silva’s) prediction may seem obvious. But a year ago, earnest and optimistic foreign-policy elites here and abroad had convinced themselves, like Gabriel, that the Islamists’ time had passed.
Similarly, the previous summer, just weeks after Silva released The Rembrandt Affair, which depicts a complex international scheme to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, the first leaks began to emerge about the Stuxnet virus, which at least temporarily crippled the mullahs’ push for a bomb.
So, when Silva—himself a convert to Judaism—writes a novel about unrest in the Holy Land, as he has done in The Fallen Angel, it is worth taking note. “In the near future,” the author told me during an interview last week, “the Arab world will be more populist and more Islamist at the same time. Eventually, I can’t imagine that the focus of this enormous energy that’s sweeping the region is not going to find itself in Israel.” In particular, Silva observed, “as the entire region becomes more Islamic, it’s only natural that the conflict is going to become more overtly religious than it already is. If that is the case, then Jerusalem, this symbol of the navel of the world, this place that all the three Abrahamic faiths hold sacred, is going to be a flashpoint for the future.”
Jerusalem is an unusual setting for both Silva and his fictional alter ego. Yanked out of the Holy City’s Bezalel Arts Academy and tasked with eliminating the Palestinians who oversaw the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, Gabriel Allon traversed Europe for several years locating and executing the murderers. After the operation ended, the character winds up living on and off in Europe, pursuing his cover-vocation as an art restorer. “Gabriel started his career as a European operative, and it’s where he’s most comfortable, and where I’m most comfortable,” Silva told me. “The hallmark of the Allon series is that they’re bifurcated, they deal with art and intrigue in almost every book.”
Gabriel is scarred and flawed, but not brittle—and never broken. “I was determined to turn Gabriel Allon and those around him into serious characters,” Silva said, “not the Hollywood version of this guilt-ridden Israeli who carries this heavy conscience around about what he’s doing for his country, and is always conflicted over the morality of his conduct, whether the Jewish state should continue to exist, etc. I was not going to do that because that’s not who these people are.”
Instead, Gabriel and his colleagues believe they’ve been entrusted with a sacred mission, and while they bicker among themselves and espouse a range of opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, they never waver in their commitment. “They see it as their personal responsibility that there never ever be another Holocaust,” Silva noted. “I know American Jews don’t like to think about this, but [Allon and company] see themselves as guardians of Jews worldwide, including in America.”
And yet, the vast majority of the work these operatives perform takes place in Europe, often to the great chagrin of Swiss, Austrian, Italian, and other authorities under whose noses Gabriel saves the world. “The settings are chosen very carefully to serve as a backdrop for the kinds of stories that I want to tell and to make the Allon series work for a broader audience other than just people who want to read about the Middle East and Israel,” Silva told me. In addition to enhancing the books’ commercial appeal, the European milieu enables Silva to broaden the conversation to include hunting for hidden Holocaust butchers, punishing malevolent Swiss bankers, and unraveling Vatican intrigue.
But for the first time in the 12-book series, in The Fallen Angel the action shifts significantly to the Jewish state itself. His latest offering, Silva explained, is “set along the Jerusalem-to-Rome historical axis, and it actually moves backward. Gabriel goes from the Sistine Chapel, built to the scale of Solomon’s Temple, and he moves backward through time.” Unforeseen events lead Gabriel and his team back to Jerusalem, where archaeology, politics, religion, and espionage intersect.
“There’s a theme that runs through the book about antiquities and truth being lost to looters,” Silva said. In Rome, Gabriel tracks a mobbed-up antiquities ring at the request of high-level friends in the Vatican, and in Israel, the spy squarely confronts the disturbing new trend of what he labels “Temple Denial.” As his senior colleague Eli Lavon—part-time archaeologist, full-time counter-surveillance specialist—intones to Gabriel from his dig near the Western Wall:
“It’s a first cousin to Holocaust Denial, and it’s now just as widespread in the Arab and Islamic world. The calculus is quite simple: No Holocaust, no Temple …”
“No Jews in Palestine.”
“Precisely. But it’s not just talk. Using the religious authority of the Waqf, the Palestinians are systematically trying to erase any evidence that there was ever an actual temple on the Temple Mount. We’re fighting an archaeological war here in Jerusalem every day.”
Lavon’s fictional plaints closely align with those of his inventor. “There’s an international campaign under way to delegitimize the state of Israel,” Silva told me. “Part of that campaign is an effort by Palestinians—and I feel comfortable saying it as a blanket term because it’s accepted by the entire leadership of the Palestinian authority—that there was never any Jewish Temple of Jerusalem.” The implications of this campaign are quite significant, Silva believes. “Absurd as that sounds,” he argued, “it has a reason, a political purpose. If you say there was not a Holocaust, which is now sort of accepted widely, unfortunately, throughout much of the Islamic world, and then you say there was never a Jewish Kingdom or temple in Israel, then why is the state here now?”
When I asked Silva whether Israelis and Palestinians could conceivably balance the need to respect the Islamic holy places with responsibly excavating artifacts so critical to Jewish history and culture, he replied that “what could be a realistic solution would be to do it jointly, as I wrote in the afterword [to The Fallen Angel]. But that’s simply not going to happen. In the old days, you used to go to the Temple Mount and the Haram and Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock all the time. Forget it now. If you even get too close to the gates, Palestinian street toughs will get in your face and tell you ‘Move away, mosque is closed, Muslims only.’ ”
The problem also persists on a larger scale. “One of the things I wanted to talk about in this [latest] book,” Silva told me, “is to look at the arc of history in that part of the Mediterranean, and all the great powers that have come through that patch of land, and how tenuous their grip has always been, how tenuous the Jewish home is in the land of Israel. When I was in Israel last summer working on the book, I encountered this animation ‘Maps of War,’ about all the great powers who’ve ruled the Eastern Med, starting with the ancient Egyptians, and it’s a reminder that history does not come to an end.”
Both Gabriel, the character, and Silva, the author, are somewhat cryptic about their views on the peace process. “Regarding Gabriel,” Silva said, “I’ve never sat and pinned him down. But I don’t think there’s a lot of daylight between us. I think if Gabriel were put under oath, he’d say he’s a two-stater. He would willingly give away virtually all of the West Bank to a reasonable Palestinian government that had forsworn violence and given up the dream of driving the Jews into the sea. But he’s not at all confident that there is this possibility for peace.”
And if life imitates art, the very end of The Fallen Angel suggests some ill omens for the region. In particular, there’s an apocalyptic Iranian regime dedicated to making the Temple Mount squabble look like a trifle. And while Silva said he was gratified that Stuxnet and related attacks have “worked, to some extent,” there’s a long way to go before Israel and the world are safe.
As for where future books in the series will take Silva and Gabriel, the author’s keeping mum: “I learned long ago never to comment about books that haven’t yet been written.” But he does note the increasing difficulty—for him, and for his protagonist—of operating elsewhere in the Middle East. “It’s not so easy for Gabriel Allon to work in the Arab world,” Silva said. “He has gone to Cairo [in Prince of Fire] and Dubai in Portrait of a Spy. It’s not so easy for me to go to the Arab world anymore.”
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