The Jewish James Bond
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 October 2009)

Daniel Silva, an American who has written a dozen successful spy thrillers since he became a novelist in 1996, likes to put his own pro-Israel views in the mouths of his characters. The special quandary of Israel is concisely stated by one character in The Secret Servant, published in 2007.

An executive from the CIA, talking to an Israeli spy, notes that America has spent $50-billion propping up Hosni Mubarak's government but still can't penetrate Egypt's intelligence service. A monstrous Islamist plot has been uncovered in Egypt but not by the U.S. To America's embarrassment, Israel has exposed it. How come? The explanation blends familiar arrogance with a confession of national vulnerability.

"Because we're better than you," the Israeli tells the American, "especially in the Middle East. We've always been better and we always will be. You have your unquestioned military might and the power of your economy, but we have a nagging fear that we might not survive. Fear is a far more powerful motivation than money."

The spy making that point, Gabriel Allon, symbolizes Israel as the nation that has to be more imaginative and daring than other countries just to avoid extinction. This theme charges Silva's books with an element of desperation, and makes them as interesting for their politics as for their sharp, swift, absorbing narratives. Silva places at the centre of his fiction Israel's belief (justified by experience) that if it loses one war it may cease to exist.

In the four of his books that I've lately read, including his latest, The Defector, Silva treats his espionage fiction as a continuation of politics by other means. He expresses himself as a partisan of Israel in a time when the Jewish state badly needs sympathetic chroniclers. His readers are never allowed to forget Israel's plight. It's always there, at centre stage or in the background, though it rarely gets in the way of his wonderfully twisted plots.

Silva has made Gabriel the hero, so far, of nine novels. He's a brilliant, resourceful but not fanatically ethical agent. He dashes around Europe and the Middle East, like a Jewish James Bond, thwarting evil-doers and frustrating assassination attempts directed at both the pope and the U.S. president. He recalls Bond in two other ways. The women involved, some of them fellow spies, are always gorgeous. And, just like Bond, Gabriel has trouble following the instructions of superiors when a better idea occurs to him.

But he's smarter than Bond. When not working for his government's spy service he's one of the world's best art restorers, used by the Vatican to bring its Renaissance masterpieces back to life. He can do just as well with a Van Gogh, and in one novel he executes (for national-security reasons) a fake painting by Mary Cassatt, the American Impressionist.

In describing the teamwork of Gabriel's operatives, Silva often echoes John le Carre (except that le Carre is no friend of Israel). Silva's good guys sometimes act like bad guys, but always with good reason. "They abused the passports of other nations, recruited agents from allied security and intelligence services, and routinely ran operations on foreign soil forbidden by long-standing accords. They did this, they told themselves, because they had no choice; because they were surrounded by enemies who would stop at nothing to ensure their destruction; and because the rest of the world, blinded by hatred of Zionism and the Jews, would not allow them to fight back with the full force of their military might."

Silva appropriates Israel's history whenever it suits his purposes. We meet the man who (fictionally) plucked Adolf Eichmann off a street in Argentina, and we learn that Gabriel got his start as an assassin by executing about half of the Black September terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In the two most recent books, Moscow Rules and The Defector, Gabriel takes on a Russian oligarch, one of the world's most ruthless men, to stop him from supplying Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles to al-Qaeda.

Gabriel claims he wants to end his spying career and spend his life working with great paintings. But every time he retires, a crisis erupts and Israel calls him back. When another agent complains that much of what spies do is tedious ( "mind-numbing boredom with brief interludes of terror"), Gabriel replies that he likes the boring parts. In fact, he asks, "Wouldn't it be nice to live in a boring country?" No, his colleague says, "then it wouldn't be Israel."

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