Sunday, November 26, 2023

Commentary on Robert Stone's Damascus Gate

Published in 1998, this novel obviously has nothing directly to say about events in the Middle East in October and November 2023. At the same time, the portrait it offers of life in contemporary Israel shows the social and political forces struggling in the region to be very similar to those of right now. Life in Israel has a long history, and the stakes that people have in it have a history that’s just as long.

The book is centered on events in Jerusalem, with significant sections taking place in the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv. It’s a book about money and power and violence and religion and much else. It shows Israel and Gaza as sites of political struggle not just for the people living there but for power players from all the world who come and go with their own agendas.

It’s not for me to say what those with close personal ties to recent events might learn from this novel, or people who have been experiencing any part of those events directly. But I can certainly say that for those of us who are in some degree outsiders, whose experience of recent events comes through television screens and social media and public events, protests and otherwise, in countries far away from the center of the violence, this book is incredibly revealing of the differing forces that shape the struggle for power in a profoundly contested part of the world.

Damascus Gate seems to me an undeniably great political novel. The variety and precision of its information is astonishing. Thomas Pynchon is the only other writer I know of who can rival it. The range of Stone’s compassion and understanding is admirable. Although the book is deeply serious, there’s still quite a bit of humor, albeit often darkly ironic. Some of the horrible moments in the narrative are emotionally wrenching, even exhausting. At times I couldn’t put the book down. At times I had to take a break because I couldn’t handle any more.

It’s not a perfect novel: a few sections in the first half of the book move a little slowly and threaten to overwhelm the reader with information, and some of the murkier entanglements of the second half remain murky, although clearly that’s part of the point. But the novel’s feverish intensity and stunningly impressive range of knowledge combine for a unique experience of a kind no other author could likely offer. The novel feels profoundly aware of the variety of sincerities and ironies and cynicisms that people bring with them to this part of the world, along with their weapons, physical or intellectual.

And just to be upfront: everybody knows by now that there’s no such thing as objectivity. Books and people have perspectives, and this one is no exception. The novel’s central character is to a significant degree an uninformed outsider regarding the events taking place. But I will say that this book is not partisan, even as it never holds back on the problems and results of violence in international partisan politics. What is most marked in it is a sense of empathy for all involved, as well as a refusal to deny what’s horrible. It’s trying to show readers how an inevitably global politics works in a region of the world that is deeply beloved and contested by people with differing ideas about what it means to believe. It’s not a book that offers certainty, as if it was the role of novels and novelists to solve political problems.

Instead, it’s about what happens when certainty collides with certainty and blends inevitably into uncertainty. It’s about both the possibility and impossibility of universalism.