Palestine Affair

Palestine Affair

by Jonathan Wilson

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In British-occupied Palestine after World War I, Mark Bloomberg, a beleaguered London painter, and Joyce, his American wife, witness the murder of a prominent Orthodox Jew. Joyce, a non-Jew and ardent Zionist, is drawn into an affair with the British investigating officer, while Mark seeks solace in the exotic colors and contours of the Middle Eastern landscape. Each of the three has come to Palestine to escape grief, and yet—caught in the crosshairs of history—they will all be forced to confront the very issues they hoped to leave behind in this swift and sensuous novel of artful concealment and roiling passions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307424488
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 427 KB

About the Author

Jonathan Wilson was born in London in 1950 and educated at the universities of Essex, Oxford, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has lived in the United States since 1976, with a four-year interlude in Jerusalem. He is the author of two previous works of fiction, The Hiding Room and Schoom. His stories, articles, essays, and reviews have appeared frequently in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. He held a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction in 1994. He is chair of the English Department at Tufts University and lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and their two sons.


Newton, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

February 26, 1950

Place of Birth:

London, England


B.A., First Class, University of Essex 1973; Ph.D., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1980

Read an Excerpt

1. Bloomberg came out of the house in North Talpiot and bicycled toward the Arab village of Abu Tor. After ten minutes or so he dismounted and found a spot where the moonlight shone brightest on a stone wall. It was a clear night. He unstrapped his artist’s box and retrieved his pallete. Back in London Joyce had carefully, kindly numbered the tubes in white so that he would be able to continue to paint even when the light grew dim. He couldn’t love her anymore, although he wished that he could. His withdrawal from his wife was almost embarrassing—a man Bloomberg’s age shouldn’t be so damaged by the death of his mother. But he was. Late night at the London Hospital, the sky a sheet of midnight blue in the rain-streaked window beside her bed, and his mother, suddenly alert, recognizing him for the first time in weeks: “I will always remember you,” she’d said. But of course it was the other way round. It was Bloomberg who would always remember her: the immigrant boy’s mother ship and protector, the sails of her broad skirts and him cowering in the hold, gripping the cloth, his face pressed to the side of her leg. Meanwhile, as he mourned, Joyce continued to make small supportive gestures that made him feel sick inside. Her concern and consideration only highlighted his impoverishment of feeling. He was numb to her, and haunted. His mother wasn’t the only ghost. Her death had released the others. Six years on from the war’s end and here were his dead friends, appearing, like Banquo’s ghost, mutilated and bloody, whenever his head snapped into a dream or reverie: Jacob Rosen, his ripped face covered in tawny phlegm; Gideon Schiff, his sweet smile intact but not his body.

Bloomberg looked beyond the terraces across the dip and swell of the earth toward Siloam and the Mount of Olives, then set up his easel and canvas. As always before painting he executed detailed sketches of his surroundings. He sat on a rock and worked in his pad with charcoal and pencil. In the moon-flooded valley the olive trees were light gray, almost white.

After a while he heard footsteps on the goat path farther up the hillside and half turned toward the noise. Two Arab men walked side by side in animated conversation. Bloomberg watched them disappear round a curve of the serpentine path, then went back to work.

Twenty minutes must have passed before he heard more noise, this time from far down the terrace. Bloomberg got up from his work and peered between the trees. There was a flurry of activity a hundred and fifty yards below him, violent enough to stir up a small cloud of dust. He looked down and thought he made out two figures. Were they struggling? Making love? Bloomberg couldn’t tell. The blanched narrow frame of a tall man emerged in a shaft of moonlight. Whoever it was dusted himself off and disappeared down the terrace into an olive grove. Bloomberg heard him piss against a tree. His partner must have followed shortly after, but by then Bloomberg was engrossed in his work again and had forgotten about them.

After sketching he painted for two hours without a break before stopping for the night. He cycled home past a line of half-built houses, one hand placed firmly in the middle of his handlebars, the other holding the small canvas he had produced. The bike wheels crunched on the graveled pathway.

The doorway to his house was lit by two garden lanterns in glass containers. When he entered Joyce was sitting on the mattress. The larger of the two trunks they had brought lay half unpacked at her feet. Her hair was pulled back and she was wearing one of the long, inappropriate winter nightshirts she had brought from England. Her friend and mentor, Leo Cohn, had told her that the nights in Jerusalem were cold, even in summer.

Bloomberg offered Joyce a sprig of jasmine that he had plucked from the bush beside the gate.

“A visitor,” he said, “should always bring something, no matter how small.”

“You’re not exactly a visitor.”

He kissed her on the forehead. Nothing he said came out right. He had to let her go.

“What did you do?” Joyce continued.

“The village, the trees.”

Joyce lay back on one of two narrow beds that had been provided for them temporarily by Aubrey Harrison, the local representative from the Zionist organization in London that had brought them out here. It was warmer in the room than outside. A thin line of sweat trickled from beneath Joyce’s chin down the open neck of her shirt.

Bloomberg turned his canvas to the wall, leaning it carefully so that only the top edge touched. He kicked off his sandals.

“What they want,” he said, “the commission, I shan’t be able to do it.”

“Is it that difficult?”

Bloomberg produced his letter of instruction from his back pocket.

“ ‘A series of works depicting Life Under Reconstruction Conditions. Progress. Enterprise. Development.’ In other words, inspiring representations of Jewish pioneers. In other words, propaganda.”

“You’ll have the nights to yourself.”

“Hardly enough.”

She didn’t say anything but he sensed that she didn’t think it would hurt him to do work on behalf of somebody else. And in this case, he knew, she happened to believe strongly in the cause. But she had decided that for the moment the kindest thing would be to keep silent. It was more kindness on her part not to mention the money, the sixty pounds advanced to him by the Palestine Foundation Fund. Hardly enough for the milk and honey that he had promised her.

“Tea?” Bloomberg asked.

“I thought maybe something else.”

Joyce took a swig from the brandy bottle next to the bed, then sat up, pulled her nightshirt over her head and threw it behind her. She sat—bravely, Bloomberg thought—waiting for him to cross the room. It had been many weeks, maybe months, since they had made love. At first he didn’t move, but when she reached back to gather her nightshirt again the movement of her breasts excited him. He took three quick steps and grabbed her wrist.

“If not now, when? Isn’t that what the rabbis say?”

Bloomberg laughed, then bent his head and began to kiss her breasts.

After they were done (it was unsatisfying for her, he knew) Bloomberg got up and turned his painting around. It was still wet. He thought he’d got the moonlight on the rooftops rather well, but nothing else. He remembered the figures down the terrace and told Joyce that he had purposefully not sketched them in because he wasn’t interested in figures anymore.

“You’re a misanthropist,” she replied. “What were they doing?”

“Love, or a local argument. I wasn’t sure. They were a long way down.”

There was a faint smell of turpentine coming, oddly, from the outside in. Bloomberg walked naked to the door and took a couple of steps into the garden. The borders of their thin lawn were dotted with shrubs and rockrose. There was a scent of lavender and the turpentine smell, which seemed to emanate from a grove of pistachio oaks. Joyce came up behind him.

“Not exactly the Garden of Eden,” she said, encircling his waist with her arms and nuzzling her face into his back, “but it would be a shame if one of us were to get expelled. I love it here.”

He unhooked her arms from around him and stepped away.

A soft moaning that might have been prayer started in their ears and grew louder as a bloodied shape tore through the hedge, rushed at Bloomberg, held him in a hug and then crashed to the ground, trapping Bloomberg beneath. Joyce screamed, a long high note. Bloomberg shoved the weight off and rolled free. He was screaming himself and his entire body shook. The figure, a middle-aged man in Arab dress, twitched and grew still; his white djellaba was ripped and blood-soaked, so too the kaffiyeh pressed to his chest in a vain attempt to stanch the flow where blood poured from a knife wound above the heart. Joyce knelt down in the dampened grass. The dead, beaten face stared up at her open-eyed. She saw, to her surprise, pale skin, a full red beard, and the curled sidelocks of an Orthodox Jew. Bloomberg rose and stood over her. In the moonlight she could see his face, chest, arms, legs and limp penis stained in blood.

2. Saud, tall for his age, ran in long-legged strides down the hillside between the trees, breathless, tripping over rocks, caught from time to time in bursts of moonlight that felt to him like gunfire. Halfway down he stopped briefly in the shadows behind the Scottish church to strip off his bloodstained shirt, then he ran again, dropping the soaked ribbons of cloth behind him as in a paper chase. There was hardly anyone around—a young couple kissing under the globe of a locust tree, and far in the distance two mounted policemen trotting, mercifully, away from him. He reached the Old City and turned into its labyrinth of alleyways. Near the sesame-oil vats on Cush Street he thought he heard someone call his name. Saud increased his pace, although his lungs were bursting, and five minutes later he emerged through the Damascus Gate. His throat was dry and his heart beat so loudly he thought he might wake the neighborhood.

At the back of De Groot’s house on St. Paul Street he climbed the stairway and pushed the door. It was locked, but the half-open window in the wall gave him access. Once inside he moved quickly to the small lamplit desk behind the sofa. He sighed with relief. His leather case containing his books—his name dutifully inscribed on the flyleaves—was there on the rug where he had dropped it when they began their lesson. He held it under his arm, moved into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher on the table. He took the glass with him when he left and, as he ran, smashed it into the stone wall, adding to the rubble at the side of the street.

Not far from the Dung Gate, Saud turned a corner, grabbed a rope, pushed his feet against a set of stone tiers and lowered himself to the bottom of a cistern. He stood shivering in an inch-thick layer of silt, his back pressed against the wall. The hircine stink in the air that he had sucked in while running was replaced by a cool dampness. He would have to wait until the suq was busy, then climb out and lose himself in the crowd.

Clouds banked like a semicircle of black hills above his head and obscured the moon. He crouched down and put his hands to his head. His hair was matted with blood and sweat; he forced his fingers through the clots, then wiped his hands on the scraps of shirt he still held. The knife plunged and De Groot, spurting blood, released him from their embrace; he was running through the trees with De Groot staggering in the opposite direction. At first he didn’t think that he was pursued, but then he heard a tumult of descent, heavy steps, shouts and, farther off, De Groot’s cries. By the time he got to the church, nimble and fast among the rocks and tall cypresses, he had lost whoever had started after him.

Moments before dawn, a woman with a jug on her hip leaned her face across the rim of the cistern and dipped her hand in hopeless expectation that she might touch water. Saud lay stretched out in the silt, one arm curled under his head as a pillow, the other stiff by his side. Her cry woke him and, startled, he rose, picked up his leather case, and grabbed the rope. The woman recoiled from the muddied gray figure rising toward her, and then Saud was out and running again like a madman through streets and curved stone stairways, up to the rampart walkway that Governor Ross had built, where, behind him, the light broke in thin wafers of pink over the city’s vaulted bazaars and cupolas.

Reading Group Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Jonathan Wilson’s A Palestine Affair, a dramatic novel of passion and politics in British-ruled Palestine of the 1920s. When Mark Bloomberg, a disillusioned London painter, arrives in Palestine, he and his American wife Joyce accidentally witness the murder of a prominent Orthodox Jew in their garden. Joyce, an ardent Zionist, is drawn into an affair with the British policeman investigating the case, while Bloomberg, transfixed by the desert light and turquoise skies, begins to grasp the complex truths of the region. All of the characters, who have come to Palestine to escape the grief of the First World War, are forced to confront their principles and their hearts in the context of a culture in the throes of a painful emergence. A Palestine Affair tells a powerful story in which love proves to be as strong a force as politics.

Discussion Questions from the Publisher

1. A Palestine Affair opens with an exposition of a marriage falling apart. "He couldn’t love her anymore, though he wished that he could" [p. 3]. The novel ends with the confirmation of another relationship ripe with pregnancy. It also opens with a murder and ends with a death. Why does the author commence and conclude his novel this way?

2. Why does each character come to Jerusalem? Compare the various characters’ memories of London with the Jerusalem in front of them—the colors, the smells, the tastes. Does Jerusalem release them from the alienation and loneliness many of them experienced in London? Why do none of the main characters stay in Jerusalem?

3. Geography and landscape are crucial elements in the novel. How do the different groups respond and relate to the environment? What is Bloomberg’s relationship with the land, as he tries to capture the subtle tones and moods of the landscape? What is the importance of each place and its role in the novel? What are the symbolic differences between the Old City, the Transjordan desert, the port of Haifa, and the pioneer settlement where Rosa works? What significance do the landscapes hold for the story and the characters? What does the desert represent? What binds Bloomberg and Saud in the desert?

4. What is the role of women in the novel? Joyce and Mayan are the only fully developed female characters in this novel, apart from absent, idealized mothers. Compare and contrast these two women. Is Joyce "a chameleon"? How are their relationships with men in general, and with Kirsch in particular, different?

5. Why is Joyce attracted to Kirsch? How is he alike or different from her husband? How are the relationships different? What binds Joyce to Kirsch? And to Bloomberg? Do the events of the novel change, or shift, these ties?

6. What determines/undermines romantic attachments in this novel? Are there any fulfilled and satisfied love relationships? Why has Bloomberg fallen out of love with Joyce: "He was numb to her" [p. 4]? Why is Kirsch so taken with her? What needs and motivation drew Joyce and Kirsch together? What brings Mayan and Kirsch together? What is the author saying about love?

7. Obsession with mothers is universal in this novel. Kirsch reflects on his mother often, especially when he is hospitalized. Bloomberg painted portraits of his mother when he met Joyce and is haunted by her after her death. "A man Bloomberg’s age shouldn’t be so damaged by the death of his mother. But he was" [p. 3]. And on parting, Saud asks Bloomberg to visit the Arab neighborhood and convey love to his mother. Why does the author concentrate on these relationships? Why are the men pining for their mothers? What is the author saying about these men and filial love?

8. One cannot place a novel in Jerusalem without tackling the massive and pervasive subject of religion. What is the role of religion in the novel? How does religion define each character and affect the way they interact with each other? What is significant about each character’s Jewishness? What are the different groups of Jews in A Palestine Affair?

9. What forms of prejudice and racism are present in the novel? Are they subtle or blatant? How are they manifested? What is the author saying about religious hatred? About anti-Semitism? About Jews against Jews? From where do the conflicts between the Zionists and the Orthodox Jews stem?

10. What is the relationship between the different communities? Are these tenuous or sturdy ties? Is any group represented in A Palestine Affair more sympathetically or more innocently portrayed than another? Is there a hierarchy based on race, religion, class, gender, and/or nationality? How is the hierarchy established? Who really wields power?

11. What statements does the novel make about the British empire as it was on the cusp of dissolving? There is much lawlessness in the novel despite the British façade of orderliness and civility. Ross believes it is the "sacred mission" of the British to "maintain the illusion that we are in control. An illusion that rests as much upon our well-deserved reputation for fairness as anything else" [pp. 72–73]. Yet to many of the British in Palestine, "Zionism and Arab pan-nationalism meant about as much to them as last year’s snow" [p. 48]. What are the moral strengths and weaknesses of the declining empire as portrayed in A Palestine Affair?

12. What is the significance of letters—handwritten, posted onto doors, sent, unsent, crumpled up, inscriptions in books, declarations of love, formal, informal—in A Palestine Affair?

13. Discuss the theme of betrayal in A Palestine Affair. What types of betrayal occur over the course of the novel? Why does Kirsch betray Mayan by not introducing her to her parents’ friends? Whom has Joyce betrayed? Is she betraying someone or something by not releasing Frumkin’s name? Is silence a betrayal? Does Bloomberg betray Joyce by ceasing to love her and traveling to the desert alone? Does Kirsch betray the system and himself by letting Saud escape? Does Ross betray the British empire by ignoring the accelerating "tinderbox" situation?

14. Discuss the style, structure, and descriptions of A Palestine Affair. Is it painterly, cinematic? Why does the author start almost every chapter with a character’s name? Is there a relationship between the structure of the novel, the order in which Wilson relates the plot, and the number of chapters in the novel?

15. How have your knowledge and opinions on the current Israel/Palestine conflict been confirmed or challenged by reading A Palestine Affair?


A conversation with Jonathan Wilson,
What initially drew you to British Mandate Palestine as a setting for your novel?
Palestine in the 1920’s was a fascinating place. The Brits preserved their ornamental colonial culture there, like an India in miniature; they went jackal hunting near Tel Aviv (there were no foxes available) and duck shooting on the Sea of Galilee. But a good number of the colonial staff, including top administrators, were Jewish, so that, as you can imagine, led to some testing conflicts of interest. I was also drawn to the raw beauty of the place, in particular Jerusalem, its Old City more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, but beyond its high walls a rough and tumble development and an assortment of new arrivals: dreamers, charlatans, lovers of ideas and lovers, all suitably displaced. An environment of stones, debris, construction, and wild flowers growing in the crevices.
And Joyce Bloomberg (nee Pierce) an American woman, neither Jewish nor Arab, is one of them. Can you talk a little about her? What is she doing in Jerusalem?
She’s there with her husband, Mark Bloomberg, a British painter out on a propaganda commission – but she also has her own reasons for making the trip to Jerusalem. I won't go into those here but I will say that I saw Joyce as one of the “new women” who emerged in the aftermath of the devastation of the First World War, a little like Brett Ashley in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Paradoxically, a lot of women came out of the war feeling stronger. The exigencies of war turned Victorian gender roles on their head. The women had taken on new jobs previously thepreserve of men, and there was a sexual urgency that didn’t allow for primness of any kind. The men who survived, by contrast, (the dead were in the millions) often wounded and broken, were in a sorry state. My Joyce is one of the newly empowered, sexually and otherwise (she smokes cigarettes!) but not quite sure what to do with that power.
That uncertainty is at the heart of the novel.
One thing that might surprise readers is that the book addresses not just tensions between Arabs and Jews but between Jews and Jews – and violence between the two camps with their differing beliefs about the future of the region.
After the murder of Yitzhak Rabin there was a lot of talk about the singularity of the event: a Jew assassinating another Jew for political reasons was generally believed to be unheard of. I knew of at least one other occasion, murky in its details for many years, but eventually revealed as eerily foreshadowing the Rabin case: a Jewish assassination of a prominent Jew, Jacob De Haan, a murder also undertaken to achieve a political end, but in Jerusalem in 1924. It seemed particularly rich material for a novel right now: the murder, its cover up, the history of the time and its undeniable links to the present situation in the Middle East.
So much of it is based on actual events? How do you draw a line between truth and fiction?
I try to be as faithful as I can to the salient details. For example, nobody smokes a brand of cigarettes that didn’t exist, or takes a train to some place where there wasn’t a station. On the other hand, I let my characters lead me where they want to go, which is frequently not in the direction taken by their antecedents in the real world, whom, I should add, are composite figures anyway, mixed and merged in my imagination.
What about the characters Mark Bloomberg and his wife Joyce? Did a British/Jewish painter named Bloomberg and his American wife actually live in Jerusalem in the 1920’s?
No. A British/Jewish painter named David Bomberg (who after years of neglect in his lifetime now has a very solid reputation in England) lived in Jerusalem from 1923-1924. He was twice married, but neither of his wives was American. Bomberg is certainly behind the character of Bloomberg – but so too are other British artists of the period, Mark Gertler (who was Dora Carrington’s lover, and on the periphery of the Bloomsbury group) and the poet/painter Isaac Rosenberg. Joyce is very much my own creation. Bomberg owned a gaucho hat much like the one that Bloomberg wears – but I’m entirely responsible for Joyce.
What was it like politically in Jerusalem in the 1920’s? Do I already have to know a lot about politics to follow your book?
Jerusalem was a small city in the early 1920’s, its population only around 100,000, and its politics were far from drawing the daily world-wide attention that they demand today. Nevertheless, it was a city where major issues over the future of Palestine were smoldering and sometimes they erupted into small conflagrations in the form of riots. By and large the British, who arrived in the aftermath of the First World War following 500 years of Turkish rule, were able to control both the Jewish and Arab populations, both of whom had national aspirations. But it certainly seems that you could feel big trouble, a whirling tornado of it, coming in the not too distant future.
I’m quite sure that you don’t need advanced esoteric knowledge of any kind to follow my novel, but an interest in love and passion might be an advantage. Perhaps too a fascination with the pressures and accidents of history and how they combine with the idiosyncrasy of personality to buffet, burn and transform well-meaning individuals into actors in a high drama.
You lived in Jerusalem for a period of time. How much research did you do there?
I lived in Jerusalem from 1977-81. I had gone out there from New York (where I had been living for a year – I was at Columbia University) to take up a teaching position in the English Department of the Hebrew University. I had a long-term girlfriend with me, but six months after we arrived, around midnight on Christmas Eve, she disappeared into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and when she eventually came out she was with another guy. After that I bought a bicycle, but the distraction was temporary, Jerusalem’s hills soon had me beaten. I’ve returned to Jerusalem frequently since I left. I’ve never done any real research there, other than the usual novelist’s approach, conducting my daily life, taking in the sights and sounds, wandering around, having coffee with people and so on.
How does the Israel of today mirror the country during the era in which A PALESTINE AFFAIR takes place?
On the surface the city is strikingly different now from what it was in 1924 when, for example, there was only one traffic light: the population has burgeoned, the city has vastly expanded. On the other hand, the Old City remains pretty much as it was, with the exception of the rebuilt Jewish Quarter, and it seems to me that the seeds of much of the present conflict that we are so – perhaps too – familiar with were sown during the period of the British Mandate, which is when my novel is set. The conflicting aspirations of two peoples arguing over the same narrow tract of land were already vibrantly manifest in 1924. Whether the British made things better or worse is an open question: either way its administration, (which included a number of British Jews who were placed in an absolutely no-win situation) found Palestine, like India, an impossible nut to crack.
Joyce gets involved in some nasty business–infidelity, illegal gun-running, etc–once her husband left for Petra. What do you think motivated her to follow this path?
I think the answer here is ultimately best left for readers to determine. One character describes her as “a chameleon.” She’s an enthusiast, but perhaps more in love with her enthusiasm itself than with its shifting objects.
There are so many strong characters with their individual struggles here. Somehow there’s a sense that behind it all you as author are perhaps closest to Kirsch, the police investigator who falls in love with Joyce, and has to struggle with her precarious moral position in the end. Is he the hero of the book? Is there anything of him in you?
Kirsch is more than a little lost when the book opens, by the end he is wiser but his wisdom comes at a price. There are two central male figures in the novel, Kirsch and Bloomberg, one young, one middle-aged, at different moments each is heroic in his own way, rising to meet challenges that are sometimes moral, sometimes artistic and occasionally physical as well. They wouldn’t be who they are, of course, if grief and failure of one kind or another, particularly in love, had not been a part of their daily diet for a while. As for my proximity to Robert Kirsch, by an odd coincidence he lives (although more than fifty years earlier) in the same apartment that I once rented in Jerusalem. On hot nights we both liked to drag our mattresses outside and sleep on the balcony. Kirsch also experiences a certain ambivalence about both the country of his birth, England, and the country of his current residence, Palestine. When I lived in Jerusalem I certainly felt some identity confusions. All happily resolved, of course, when I became a U.S. citizen.

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Palestine Affair 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed learning about British run Palestine that Wilson inserts here and there in this novel. The mystery and intrigue intermingled with some historical characters made it well worth my time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the flavor of the Middle East in A Palestine Affair, but when I finished the book, I don't know that I think that it was such a great read. It seemed to me that the depth of the book was not in the story line, but in the ability of the writer to convey the terrain, weather, etc. to the reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I decided to read this novel based on B&N's website promotion last week. Overall, the story was bland and I cared very little for the main characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hard to believe this was written by a professor. Contrived story line where every woman is horny and orgasmic - the "heroine" taking a pee in the front garden of her home - give me a break! Readable, if only for the limited historic backdrop.