Leon Uris: “Exodus”

Fascinating. Published in 1959, not long after the events it describes, this self-proclaimed epic novel tells the story of the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. It claims all the ‘events’ are true, but the characters are fictional, and are not intended to represent real people. I’m too ignorant of the history to comment on Uris’ success either with his facts or with his fictionalising, but if at least most of the book represents what happened then it’s an eye-opening story.

I initially assumed that the book, from its subtitle and general story, would be largely Zionist propaganda, but, while definitely being on the side of the Jews, it does try with some success to be even-handed, portraying many of non-Jews (e.g. British, Arab Palestinians) as peace-loving honourable types. For me it corrects the traditional leftist account of the West/the Jews kicking out or massacring thousands of Palestinians: it is at the least much more drawn-out, varied, and more complicated than that.

What also took me back was ‘perfidious Albion’ – how the British, basically now pro-Israeli, were so strongly behind the Arabs, even after the Holocaust, and did so much to try and prevent Jewish immigration into Palestine. I’d heard that, for example, Monachem Begin had been a ‘terrorist’, but had no idea how much killing between British and Jew there had been (if the book is right). It shouldn’t of course have surprised me that an imperial power will always look to its geopolitical interest, but it did.

As a novel this ambitious project does work: Uris’ dialogue and conventional novelistic scenes are very well written, and the plot does build to an emotionally powerful climax (he has the challenge of welding history and novel plot), but when he has long flashbacks to earlier Jewish history the writing is frankly dreadful. Paragraphs like (I’m not quoting with the book in front of me)

The First World War had begun!

clunk badly, particularly desperate exclamation marks, and there are many other times throughout the novel when I winced.

The whole Uris thing is interesting, as the endpapers advertise other novels like The HajjTrinity (and epic about Irish history), and others. He seems to specialise in national epics, which makes me think of Virgil and his Aeneid. Uris’ Israel is in fact the closest modern analogue to Aeneas’ Rome: the Trojan isn’t quite returning to an ancestral home, but Virgil makes it as much this as he can; but the whole idea of personal sacrifice for a destined physical homeland, initial attempts at peaceful settlement turned into civil war by a few malcontents, and then final success at the cost of undeserved bloodshed – both epics share these elements.

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