Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

Arabs lived in the shelter of the eighteenth-century ruined fortresses, and even now in the years of the establishment of Israel, burning with its mixture of religion, hygiene, and applied sociology, the poor Arabs still hung their washing on the battlements, so that it fluttered all along the antique sea-front, innocent of the offence it was committing in the eyes of the seekers of beautiful sights and spiritual sensations, who had come all the way from the twentieth century, due west of Acre. Indeed, the washing draped out on the historic walls was a sign or progress, enlightenment, and industry, as it had been from time immemorial; it betokened a settlement and a society with a sense of tomorrow, even if it was only tomorrow's clean shirt, as against the shifty tent-dwelling communities of the wilderness; and however murky the cave-like homes along the shore, nad however indolent the occupants, they were one up on the Bedouin, at least in their own eyes if not in the sight of the tourist cameras which photographed the Bedouin shepherds continually but deplored the hung-out washing at Acre.

The Mandelbaum Gate is Muriel Spark's longest book (at a whopping 320+ pages), and bears few of her trademarks. It is surprisingly compassionate toward its protagonists, short on death and tragedy, though the subject matter might have easily invoked Spark's more violent tendencies, and at times borders on florid (the above passage is two sentences!).

But then again, its protagonist, Barbara Vaughan, is the most like Spark of all heroines, so perhaps it's unsurprising that Spark felt kindly disposed toward her, and her attention captured for longer. Like Spark, Vaughan is a half-Jewish, half-Protestant convert to Catholicism. The setting is Jerusalem, 1961, a city separated into an Arab and a Jewish half by the title gate, which is closely guarded and travel restricted. Barbara's fiance, an archaeologist, is working on the Arab side of the border, and Barbara undertakes to pass through, knowing that her Jewish blood puts her at danger even though she is a British citizen.

Such a premise threatens to devolve into a very Graham Greene-like spy caper, but Spark slyly buries the most espionage-like elements into b-plots and isolated moments. Instead, Barbara lingers at the Christian shrines in Jordan, disguised as an Arab woman, catches scarlet fever, and lingers in a sick bed--in short, there is simply too much lingering for The Mandelbaum Gate to qualify as a caper of any kind.

Instead, what Spark delivers is an uncharacteristically deft exploration of the multifarious perspectives on the Holy Land. One of my favorite passages is the one above, which describes the way that the residents of Acre struggle to maintain a present existence against the expectation of tourists and pilgrims, whose in their faith paradoxically seek to deaden and ossify the shrines they visit. In another passage, a collection of friars at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre look on in horror as a visiting priest cautions his congregation against trusting the claims of every shrine:

The three friars gazed at the priest as with one gaze. They had known it. The incipient defroque was undermining the Holy Land, as he went on to enumerate for practical purposes the shrines which his pilgrimage might well skip and the dubiety of their origins, their thoughts went to their brethren, the custodians of the Holy Land to whom these places were their whole heart and life; tears came to the eyes of the eldest friar as he thought of the venerable Franciscan, well past ninety, who kept the house where Our Lady was conceived by St. Joachim and St. Anne, and who had wanted nothing for himself all his life but to show it to the pilgrims and pray with them as they came, and collect alms for the poor of the place, and die there on that spot.

Again we are faced with the essential oxymoron created when the word Holy collides with Land; without a doubt the priest is the more literally correct, but his neatly ordered faith leaves no room for the lives of those that still live in Israel--or, as the Arabs in the book call it, Occupied Palestine.

In a broad sense, the Mandelbaum Gate itself provides a symbol of this conundrum, illustrating the difficulty of moving from one's own perspective into another's:

He followed the ancient walls of the city and Temple, past the gates of historic meaning, sealed and barred against Israel--the Zion Gate, Dung Gate, Jaffa Gate, New Gate. Then St. Stephen's Gate opened within the Old City to another medieval maze of streets--Damascus Gate, that gate of the Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and HErod's Gate. He walked round the city until at last, fumbling in his pocket 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.

But then again, the Mandelbaum Gate carries a different symbolic charge for each character. For the Arab Abdul Ramdez, the gate is the division of his family, as it separates him from his beloved sister, Suzi. For the normally staid English diplomat, Freddy Hamilton, who helps Barbara pass through into Jordan against his character, it is the inaccessible wall that prevents him from recovering his memories of the pilgrimage, through which he seems to inhabit some sort of fugue state. For Barbara, it is the artificial barrier between her Jewish self and Gentile self, that if only it were opened, may provide a total sense of identity:

She had thought then, but who am I?
I am who I am.
Yes, but who am I?

Spark is both canny and blasphemous enough to note the echo of Jehovah's words in Exodus, "I am that I am." If Barbara, made in God's image, cannot get a picture of herself, what then of God? The Holy Land is fractured, Spark maintains, because our view of God is fractured. Just as uncharacteristically, Spark ends the book optimistically, in the passage just above, as Freddy wanders through Jerusalem looking at the gates. Most are shuttered, but the Mandelbaum remains--the only entry way from one side of Jerusalem to the other--and it seems very small and mean, "flanked by two huts," and perhaps even comic. Can such a barrier really be insuperable?


Christopher said...

And for the record:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie >
The Mandelbaum Gate >
The Only Problem >
Girls of Slender Means >
Momento Mori >
Robinson >
Hothouse on the East River >
The Driver's Seat>
Aiding and Abetting >
The Finishing School

Brent Waggoner said...

You should read some books by some other authors.

Christopher said...

I'm comfortable in my niche.