By Henry George
The world of international espionage thriller writing is a crowded one. There are many writers plowing a similar furrow, all attempting to transport the reader to a world the mirror of our own, enlarged to fit the author’s imagination and the reader’s need to feel alive through events magnified in scope and intensity to sate our need for vitality in a world of banal late modernity. Daniel Silva, author of the Gabriel Allon series of thrillers, has achieved this over twenty-one books that never fail to grip the reader in a web of tension. But they go further: Silva’s books maintain an undercurrent of tragedy that is layered with the spirits of the past and the present, particular to these characters, but universal to all of us.
Gabriel Allon is an Israeli, one time art student and sometime art restorer, now assassin and intelligence officer for the Israeli intelligence service, known as the Office. In later books he becomes chief, a role glimpsed as his destiny from the early books, one which he resists for years but for which he is made and to which he eventually acquiesces. Allon is no action-man, adding complexity to the texture of his character, drawing the reader to him. The description of his face—narrow chin, nose as if carved from wood, startling green eyes framed by hair shot with grey at the temples—together with his name are echoes from a biblical past.
Allon is diminutive in stature and, much like his small national home of Israel, is wrapped in a thorn-coat of tragedy. He loses his first wife to madness and his first son to death in a car bombing in Vienna in the early nineties. Leah spends the rest of her days in a nursing home in Israel, replaying the explosion over and over in her mind. For her, “the snow falls on Vienna while the missiles fall on Tel Aviv” forever. Allon remarries but carries these memories with him, along with memories of past killings. His first mission was Operation Wrath of God, when Prime Minister Golda Meir gives the order to “send forth the boys” to hunt down and kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich massacre. Allon leaves Israel a shy young art student at the Belazel Academy and returns a man with temples turned ash-grey by what he’s seen and done. Even watching an Office operation over thirty years later, his right hand forms a pistol grip and his index flexes eleven times, pulling the spectral trigger of his Beretta pistol.
Allon is not the only character afflicted by history. He and his comrades bear the scars on their souls of their own sorrow, reflecting on an individual level the scars on the soul of the Jewish people. This is directly addressed in the early books—The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, and A Death in Vienna—all of which deal with aspects of the Shoah and attacks on Israel during the Second Intifada. A Death in Vienna is one of the most powerful, concerning the death march from Sobibor, in which Gabriel’s mother Irene almost died. The clarity of Silva’s prose in its description of the horror allows it to sink into one’s bones. The book reminds the reader that this rupture in history is still with us in the survivors who remain, having done their best to piece together their shattered lives and spirit.
Much of the series of course takes place in the Middle East, from the terrorism of the Second Intifada, to the threats of a nuclear-armed Iran, to the chaos of the Arab Spring, to the lakes of blood that wash through the region from the mass-murdering Bashar al-Assad (the Butcher of Damascus) and the death-soaked ISIS. It is Israel’s fate that it exists in one of the most violent regions on the Eurasian landmass, suffering more than its share of war and violence. Allon’s substitute father figure, Office chief Ari Shamron, represents in his life the trails, tribulations, and triumphs of a nation reconstituted from the ashes of the murdered and doomed to fight for its very existence.
Europe is also a looming presence throughout the series. Here we witness Silva’s skill not only as a thriller writer but a teller of ghost stories. His writing often exudes allusive and descriptive power, but more so here. Vienna and the other European cities through which Allon carves his bloody way are cities of ghosts in a continent of the dead and damned. Vienna is not only haunted by the ghosts of his first family, but also of the Jewish communities scoured from their homes of centuries. There is a feeling of absence to Europe, an unspoken knowledge that there are fewer people than there should be, the dead of Europe’s murdered Jewish world pressing on the world of the living, from where they were unjustly driven by the millions.
Allon and his team move through a world of ghosts that have only partially been laid to rest, and perhaps never can, maybe never should be. This does not only apply to Europe but to Israel itself. The novels, Prince of Fire in particular, do not shy away from the bloody founding of Israel, accepting the simultaneously triumphant and tragic nature of its creation without falling into the relativism that put Jewish Israelis on the same level as their European killers. Those displaced are seen as fully human, caught up in history’s flood, given the agency of decency and cruelty. The legacy of centuries of oppression and suffering is felt through Allon’s own family, his mother the origin of his artistic prowess. As we read in House of Spies, Allon’s home in the Jezreel Valley, “like most in Ramat David, was a place of sadness—of candles burning for parents and siblings who had not survived, of screams in the night.” The ghosts of the European past follow Europe’s surviving Jews to Israel, there to mingle with the ghosts of all the ages long before.
The wonderful thing about the Gabriel Allon novels is not just their furiously paced action, but in the fact that while the characters have all been eroded by the tides of history, there is also an acceptance there, revealed in their actions and deeds. Even though life may be a vale awash with tears, it is still a gift worth accepting, that living is something worth doing, leavened with deadpan humor. The simple things take on greater significance when they remind you of the past that made you and the future that you in turn will make. The blessing of others is revealed when “Gilah, Shamron’s long-suffering wife, lit the Shabbat candles at sundown while Shamron, in the Yiddish intonations of his Polish youth, recited the blessings of the bread and the wine. For a brief moment it seemed to Gabriel that there was no operation … only his family and his faith.”
This attachment to family and faith is why even though the weight of the past presses down on Allon and his family, his team, and his people, it does not crush them. These novels are a restatement of the sanctity of the individual, and our capacity to act on the stage of world affairs and drive the chariot of history one way or another through our own efforts. Allon and his friends and comrades are far from powerless pawns in a deterministic universe devoid of agency. Nor are they simply victims who face the world with their manifest pain as their only calling card to membership of the human community.
Allon and his fellows are willing to kill and die for their country and its people. They repudiate the vacuous void of a song that is John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In this way, Israel reminds those of us in the safe, prosperous, and senescent West what it means to be a nation in history. This arguably explains a good deal of the resentment many Europeans feel towards the Jewish state. Those they tried to kill not only survived, but are a living, national refutation of the supposed one-way march towards a comfortable End of History where the lotus-eating Last Men can simply while away their existence, sedated by materialism and consumerism.
Allon’s actions could potentially engender malignant outcomes, but this is a possibility for anyone and cannot preclude acting in the world to make a world. Barak is more than a sum of its parts: each individual contributes unique talents to the greater whole. As with the team, so with the Israeli nation, and the nations of the world. There is no true universality without particularity, and particularity without the universal devolves into soul-sapping relativism, something these books never do.
Silva has penned a series that stands the test of time, with their themes of love, loss, anger, betrayal, forgiveness, acceptance of one’s life, and the need to act to make a life that’s worth living even in the face of the past. The Gabriel Allon novels reach to the depths of human experience to leaven the heights of intrigue and action that are staples of the genre. In Gabriel Allon and his friends, we see individuals wholly different and distant from ourselves, but to whom we feel a deep connection, because of the particulars of their fictional lives. That this is so is testament to the continuing power of fiction itself, especially when practiced by a craftsman like Daniel Silva.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. He tweets at @intothefuture45