City of Secrets takes us to 1945 Jerusalem. We see the volatile city through the eyes of Brand, a former mechanic turned taxi driver who is now a member of the underground resistance against the British control, the Mandate, over Palestine. The British, in fact, try to control everything, including the flow of Jews headed to the land of Israel. It’s still three years until independence.
Brand, a Latvian Jew, lives in the shadows. His job is to listen. He’s dragging the memory of the camps, and all that happened to his family, with him.
“When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins … The winter after the war with no home to go back to and no graves to venerate, he signed on a Maltese freighter and landed in Jerusalem, realizing his mother’s lifelong dream.”
It’s the dream of many others, as well, to live here. And also, through sometimes violent means, to convince the British to leave. In this spare, clean novel (190 fast pages), O’Nan puts us immediately into Brand’s inner turmoil. He’s got to navigate through his sorrow. He’s always in long lines or slowed down at checkpoints. The city is his own personal weigh station; limbo.
“The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers. The Turks and Haredim, the showy Greek and Russian processions—everyone seemed to be in costume, reenacting the meticulous past.”
The resistance is a puzzle, too. Who to trust? Brand is a man lost, cut off completely from his past and trying to find a way to settle into this new world. His anchors are his relationship with the decade-older Eva, an ex-actress and member of his cell. She works as a prostitute and also, in her job, gathers information. She listens, too. His taxi allows him a certain kind of freedom, even though he knows he is never safe. He buffs his old black Peugeot to a “mirror-like shine.” It’s the one thing he needs and the one thing he trusts.
Through most of City of Secrets, Brand is finding his way.
“Some nights, navigating the shadowy labyrinth with its vaulted galleries and courtyards and bazaars, Brand felt as if he’d traveled back in time. Others, coming to her half drunk and wildly grateful to be alive, guarding the happy secret of his myopic, impossible love, he saw himself caught up in an exotic adventure. He knew they were both illusions, knew precisely why he needed them. He was no hero, no Romeo, just a fool, untouched as yet by the Angel of Forgetfulness.”
Brand’s cell is Haganah. Others are the more violent Irgun. “Times change,” says Eva. “We all want the same thing.” Should Irgun and Haganah combine forces? Whenever the Irgun strike, the British crack down harder.
Despite all the layers and complications, City of Secrets is as much a mood piece as character-based thriller. The entire question of Israel’s gathering strength seems to be embodied in Brand’s growing recognition of the stakes and also of what’s right. City of Secrets is a study of a man struggling to shed sharp and painful memories, or deal with them. O’Nan’s brush strokes are quick and efficient. The descriptions are rich and thorough yet the plot moves quickly—there’s a ton of action here, including a harrowing scene where his cell detonates railroad tracks and stops a train.
Brand is a man with his own code and questions. He’s keen on understanding cruelty and how violence is justified. At first he’s the kind of freedom fighter who makes sure his finger stays on the trigger guard, not the trigger. Later, he finds himself caught up in rebel success and wonders why he suddenly wants to blow everything up. Identity is fluid. Politics are personal. Self-preservation isn’t a bad thing. The ending is a piece of work—that’s all I’ll say.
City of Secrets is a master class in understated writing, unsentimental prose and character development wrapped around a story with high stakes. I finished the last page and went back to the beginning and started over.