A Parable for the Millennium

By Hower, Edward | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

A Parable for the Millennium


Hower, Edward, The World and I


Robert Stone's Israel crackles with religious and political tensions as a fascinating assortment of fanatics conspire to obliterate the nation in order to save it.

For Robert Stone, America's most eloquent chronicler of the impending apocalypse, Israel is an ideal setting. In Damascus Gate, his powerful new novel, he makes the country crackle with religious and political tensions and peoples it with a fascinating assortment of fanatics who are prepared to obliterate the nation in order to save it. Yet the author's obvious fondness for Israel and many of his more peaceable characters provides a glimmer of hope amid all the darkness. Redemption is possible for those who seek to understand the passions that consume the land.

In Stone's novels an atmosphere of danger has always hung over the places where his characters play out their tales of depravity and heroism, soul murdering and salvation seeking. In his first book, A Hall of Mirrors, his damaged young protagonists took on vicious politicians in racially explosive New Orleans. Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1975, brought the trauma of Vietnam back to a bleak, paranoid California. A brutal Central American dictatorship was the setting for revolution in A Flag for Sunrise. A drugged-out screenwriter's adventures in corrupt Hollywood and Mexico were the subject of Children of Light. In Outerbridge Reach, the lonely hero pitted himself against the turbulent high seas.

Stone's fictional Israel is alive with cynical intrigue, but it also resonates with the energy of its spiritual history. Christopher Lucas, an American journalist who is the novel's central character, is especially fascinated by Jerusalem, "where the Judean wind praised the Almighty, every sultry breeze [was] infested with prayer, every crossroads labor[ed] under its own curse. Where the stones were not mere stones but resided in the heart and were wept upon or given in place of bread."

Lucas likes the mix of people who live bustling modern lives in Jerusalem's ancient streets. "The Damascus Gate, with its Ottoman towers and passages and barbarous Crusader revetments, was his favorite place in the whole city. He took a simple tourist's pleasure in the crowds and the blaring taped Arab music, in the rush provided by the open sacks of spices that were piled in wheelbarrows beside the vendors' stalls." In its name he finds "the suggestion of a route toward mystery, interior light, and sudden transformation."

Even for Lucas, who has seen it all and has no patience with sentimentality, Israel is clearly a place of magic, both benign and evil.

A spiritual quest

As the book opens, Lucas does not know that he will soon be closely involved in the spiritual journey the city's landmarks evoke for him. He is in Israel as a freelancer looking for an interesting story to write. One possibility is to investigate a gang of thugs that beats up Palestinian children who throw rocks at Israeli soldiers during antigovernment demonstrations. Another possible subject is a phenomenon known as "the Jerusalem Syndrome"--a kind of religious mania that inspires some people to commit acts of violence in order to prepare for the coming of the true Messiah.

The subjects appeal to Lucas' secular worldview. "He liked the ones that exposed depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit."

Both subjects, he discovers, are interconnected--are in fact part of a complex scheme to blew up the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem's most sacred site, in order to clear the way for the building of the Third Temple, thus facilitating the arrival of the Messiah. He does not know who is behind the conspiracy, but, as his investigation progresses, he learns that his own personal salvation is linked with the ideas that have inspired it.

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