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The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

gateThe Mandelbaum Gate was published in 1965, an interesting time in Middle East history. It was two years before the Six Day War between Israel, and its neighbours, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, which led to the creation of a buffer zone between Jordan and Israel. Israel created other buffer zones between itself and Egypt (Sinai) and Syria (the Golan Heights) but Spark’s novel is concerned with Israel, Jordan and what would later be the West Bank.

In some ways, The Mandelbaum Gate is a political thriller, reflecting many of the themes which were popular in the novels of, say Ian Fleming and John Le Carre. The area formerly known as Palestine had been a British Protectorate up till 1948 when the State of Israel was created. However, the novel is full of Europeans, especially the British, behaving as if nothing had changed. The fact that it has is forcefully borne in upon the reader by the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The backdrop of a high profile manncriminal trial is a popular element of political thrillers and this one is as controversial as it gets. There can be little doubt that bringing Eichmann to justice was deeply desirable. His record as Hitler’s lieutenant-commander and one of the architects of the Holocaust is well known, but from a modern perspective, the way it was done raises some eyebrows. The process is outside the remit of this review; suffice to say that kidnapping someone, drugging him and bundling him onto a plane in the sovereign territory of another nation-state was the sort of behaviour that many people found questionable even then. Had Eichmann been less noxious many more questions would have been asked.

However, Spark’s inclusion of the trial in her novel adds to the reader’s sense that small states can no longer be safely ignored. Israel, at any rate, is keen to disabuse the rest of the world of its complacency. There is no doubt that the world is changing and the bigger powers are running to keep up. It is one of the many elements that adds to the novel’s sense of ambiguity and the questions it asks about good and evil, religion, nationality, race and loyalty.

Spark’s protagonist is an English teacher, Barbara Vaughan. Barbara is in her thirties, a Catholic convert from Judaism, as was Spark herself. Barbara’s status as a woman and a Jewish-Catholic one at that is one way in which Spark takes the thriller genre in hand and gives it a good shake. Barbara is gutsy, bloody-minded and heedless of other people’s opinions, but also committed to her own strong moral code. She is closer to the ideal of the intrepid hero than Freddie Hamilton, the novel’s central male protagonist. Freddie is a fifty-something diplomat, with an unexciting career, a demanding elderly mother back home in Harrogate and a burden of guilt about said mother. In some ways, he is more of an archetypal female character than Barbara Vaughan, who is bound by nothing she didn’t choose. She has a fiancée, a job and a commitment to Roman Catholicism, but as the reader finds out, it’s all very much on her terms. Freddie, on the other hand, rarely seems to be master of his own destiny. When Barbara finds herself in the clutches of a monster, she lashes out and makes her persecutor’s life miserable. Freddie’s response to any sort of tribulation is to hide himself away and not just physically. He suffers severe mental stress and amnesia, allowing him to escape any responsibility for his actions and while his suffering is real enough, it’s very convenient.

The way Spark upsets the gender applecart is fun and of course, at the time the novel was published it would have been challenging stuff, but twenty-first century readers might find Freddie’s passivity annoying. It is harder to sympathise with him than with Barbara, or her helpers, Adbul and Suzi Ramdez. These siblings are the children of an unlikeable father and are determined to carve out their own lives, separate from him and his attempts to dominate them. The creation of the State of Israel disrupted their lives, but they bounced back and got on with things in a way that poor Freddie never could. The downside to Suzi and Abdul’s breezy pragmatism is that it suggests a lack of empathy towards the Palestinians and their situation; I found it discomforting and had to remind myself that novelists, unlike historians and documentary makers are under no obligation to serve an agenda outside that of the story. They do not have to be fair or balanced and it is hard to see how the novel could survive as a form if they were.

Unlike historians and documentary-makers, however, novelists should strive for a sense of place and plenty of atmosphere and this Spark does very well. She builds up the sense of tension just enough for the reader to expect the worst, then hurls it straight out of left field in a way that is shocking and completely unexpected. Her depiction of Jordan and Israel stresses their disorientating effect on the outsider in ways that are frightening, for example, the mental and physical debility caused by extreme heat. However, the disorientation can also be funny. Spark touches on the rivalry between the Catholic and Orthodox churches over territory at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This has a comedic element, involving gangs of combative priests, but it also reflects the wider conflict over who owns Jerusalem, the holy places and in fact, the Holy Land itself and none of the major monotheistic religious groups stand aloof from that. The Mandelbaum Gate was published nearly half a century ago, but it remains as cogent as it was back then, if not more so.

Hatchett Digital, London (2013 this edition) ISBN 978-1-4055-2798-9. 400pp in print.

6 comments on “The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

  1. sshaver
    April 23, 2013

    Always in favor of English teacher protagonists!

  2. Sharonrob
    April 23, 2013

    I liked that as well. Barbara is cerebral, opinionated and a lot tougher than anyone, including herself, thinks she is. Things haven’t always been easy for her. One of my great-uncles was a Catholic convert from Judaism and he was given a really horrible time because of it, but he dug his heels in; like Barbara, he wasn’t about to be bullied by anyone. Like her, he found that those who really loved him didn’t cut him off, no matter how much they disagreed with his decision.

  3. Jackie
    April 23, 2013

    This sounds really interesting. I’ve read some of Spark’s other works, but not this one & the suspense & setting sounds like something that I’d enjoy reading. And a female protagonist who is ahead of her times would be good too.
    I like the cover depicted, it reminds me of a quilt & sets an intriguing tone.

  4. Martine Frampton
    April 25, 2013

    Thanks for this, I started listening to this on audiobook once and abandoned it but it sounds excellent. I will put it on the list for Muriel Spark Reading Week

  5. Pingback: The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark | Leaves & Pages

  6. Dana
    July 30, 2015

    Having read the novel just know I keep wondering if there is a clue in the mention (page 266) of the dinner party that Barbara Vaughan attended in London. At that evening she met Ruth Gardnor and her husband. It is also mentioned that she stopped playing cello after that evening (p.285). Has this meeting something to do with Barbara converting to Catholicism?

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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