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Palestine, 1916-1919, is a slice of history with obvious relevance to current Mid-east conflicts--so, while Irving (Axis) again fails to bring sufficient storytelling control to an ambitious fact/fiction plot, his dramatization of the political wrinkles and nuances here is often rewarding. Hero #1 is Asa Koblensky, a Russian-Jewish army deserter who makes his perilous way to Palestine via Damascus--and is promptly disillusioned: some of the Jewish settlers are pawns of the Turkish overlords; some, like the prosperous Aaronsohns, are apolitical compromisers; among the settlers are Marxists, Hassidim, ""a disputatious mob""; and few are ready to join Asa in ""militant self-assertion"" towards Jewish-homeland autonomy. Meanwhile, hero #2, London's Michael Bron (a thoroughly assimilated Jew), is brought to Cairo by Britain's ""Arab Bureau""--where his colleagues will include both T. E. Lawrence and Lawrence-like agent Owen Kippax. And so, when Koblensky turns up in Cairo, offering his services as an anti-Turkish Palestinian contact, he'll meet Bron . . . who, by novel's end, will move towards Jewish roots and Zionism. With these chief characters as framework, then, Irving presents the complex interplay of issues and motives: the British need for both Jewish and Arab support against the Turks (Kippax courts rising desert king Ibn Saud); the many shades of Zionism and anti-Zionism (much of it among Jews), with the backroom Balfour Declaration negotiations; the constant undertone of British anti-Semitism; the eventual mobilization of Palestinian Jews against the Turks (Koblensky's dear Sarah Aaronsohn will die after Turkish interrogation); and the Jews' realization, circa 1919, that victorious Britain would not, in fact, be gratefully handing over Palestine to them. (""A land had to be taken. It was never given."") Unfortunately, neither of Irving's heros here is fully-fleshed or especially engaging, while the character of Arab-loving, kinky Kippax is diffused by the parallel, repetitious portrait of Lawrence (a de-glamorized, reasonable fellow). And, throughout, Irving sacrifices focus and momentum by throwing in subplots on related issues--e.g., Egyptian nationalism, as embodied in an Egyptian-Jewish, femme-fatale double agent. Still: this hard-working novel succumbs to little of the over-simplification that afflicts most Mideast historical fiction; and, if slow and uninvolving (except for the solid, grisly guerrilla action), Irving's conscientious presentation will be welcomed by those who want a many-sided view of history--but not in non-fiction form.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row