Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


What I've been reading

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone. 500 pages, 1998, Simon & Schuster, Inc.

There's a lot to like about this novel of political intrigue in 1992 Jerusalem, as Stone weaves a tale full of millennial passions, Arab-Jewish relations, mysticism, and a quest for meaning, set against a backdrop of a plot to destroy the Temple Mount and restore the Jewish Temple, a foolhardy task if there ever was one. It's a hugely ambitious novel, and one which I admire more than I like. There are some problems with it, you see.

The main story concerns Christopher Lucas, an American expatriate journalist who has come to Jerusalem searching for meaning in his life. He lives an indolent lifestyle, trying to find stories to tell, and ultimately finding little to fill the void inside him. One day he comes across Sonia, another American, but far different from Lucas. She's a black Sufi whose parents were Communists, and she spent time in Castro's Cuba when she was younger and in third world countries during her adult life. She too has come to Jerusalem to discover something, and she thinks she has found it in Sufism. She and Lucas begin a tentative romance, but his lack of faith contrasts sharply with her mystical faith. When Stone tracks their relationship, the book is riveting, even as he introduces other players to highlight their differences (and similarities). The people in the novel are all lost souls, and when a musician friend of Sonia's, Raziel Melker, becomes friends with an older Louisiana man, Adam de Kuff, who becomes a street preacher and stirs up the religious yearnings in his flock, Lucas finds himself being drawn into a world that he refuses to understand. He begins to work on a book about "Jerusalem syndrome," the idea of people coming to the Holy City and becoming possessed by a millennial fever, and so even as he tries to get closer to Sonia, he is also trying to analyze this phenomenon. She attempts to coax him closer to her side, but he resists, and this tension keeps much of the book gripping and fascinating.

Stone overreaches, I think, with the plot to blow up the Haram esh-Sharif. The plot is introduced almost halfway through the book, and it never really coalesces into much, fizzling out impotently, even though it has major consequences for the players in the drama. It's just that Stone tries to turn this into a political thriller, and it's not really suited for that. Although the meditative parts of less "exciting," they are also far more interesting, and the idea that De Kuff is setting himself up as the Messiah is far more pertinent than blowing up the Muslim holy places. Toward the end, Stone attempts to reconcile the fact that restoring the Temple in the physical world means little in the spiritual world, but that's somewhat self-evident, and it feels forced. The machinations of the plot - who's really behind it? - are not terribly interesting, and the various dangers that beset the characters could easily spring simply from the volatile atmosphere that already exists in Jerusalem. Lucas and Sonia take a harrowing journey through the Gaza Strip, and although the problems that occur there are tangentially related to the plot, they don't have to be. It's unfortunate that we get tangled up in it, because it doesn't seem to fit.

The bomb plot also hinders the book in that Stone is forced to introduce many more characters than my poor little brain, at least, can handle. Characters show up early on in the book and then disappear for 300 pages, when we're supposed to remember them. That might be more my problem than the book's, but it's still a bit annoying to read about characters who have previously appeared for one or two pages and who we're supposed to remember. Many of them are involved in the bomb plot, so they would be unnecessary if that aspect was dropped.

The best thing Stone does is give us a wonderful sense of the city of Jerusalem. As Lucas moves throughout the city, we get a good feel for the various neighborhoods and the tensions in the streets and houses. These are people packed onto a tiny plot of land, each believing their way is right and that they have a valid claim to the land. The mystical feel of the book goes a long way toward mitigating the frankly dull bomb plot. Is De Kuff a holy man, or just crazy? Will Lucas ever believe, or will he convince Sonia that she's foolish for believing? What is Melker's role in the plot - is he part of it, or are others using him because he himself is a spiritual fool? Even without the bomb plot, the various organizations jockeying for position in Jerusalem are vividly shown, as they all bite and scratch at each other to gain a small upper hand. Stone almost effortlessly shows the folly of trying to take control of something that defies control - the soul. He never belittles the religious or the non-religious, but he does point out that each person will fail, unless they recognize what's inside them and deal with that accordingly. Lucas will fail to find peace, and Sonia will fail to find salvation, unless they can understand who they are. That's where the book shines.

It's unfortunate that it isn't better, because the parts that are good are very good. It's an intriguing and difficult book to read, but it's certainly a fascinating journey through a city that defies expectations and people who are trying their best to live in it.

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