Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees, Mariner Books (2007)

Omar Yussef works as a teacher at a United Nations school in the Palestinian district of Bethlehem. With his detailed knowledge of political, religious and cultural history he tries to educate his students as to the reasons for the complex social and geographical nature of their lives and to instil a philosophy of understanding, respect and negotiation rather than hate and violence. Given the daily tit-for-tat firing of weapons across the valley between the local Martyrs Brigade and Israeli Army and regular violent deaths amongst the communities they live in, along with the vocal, hostile ideology of their parents and kin, his teachings do not always find a receptive audience. One of his success stories is his former pupil, George Saba, a Palestinian Christian. When a local Martyrs Brigade leader is killed by an Israeli sniper, Saba is accused by the Muslim martyrs of being a collaborator and is arrested by the local Palestinian police force. Both Yussef and the authorities know that Saba is innocent, but the leader’s death demands justice to be seen to be done to sate the community’s outrage, even if that means convicting and executing an innocent man. Unwilling to accept such an injustice, Omar Yussef sets out to find the real collaborator and free his friend, putting his own life at risk as he tangles with the Martyrs Brigade and the Palestinian authorities.

“When you’re a stimulating teacher, you had better be careful. You never know what you might inspire people to do.” George laughed and put his hand on Omar Yussef’s. “Don’t worry, Abu Ramiz. It’s not your fault. I thought about it for days, every time they came to the neighbourhood to shoot across the valley. Finally I knew I had to act. You see, I thought I understood the gunmen better than you, better than my dad. In South America, I saw thugs like them. They were cowards when they were confronted. Remember, I lived in Chile when the military dictatorship was forced to give up power. But unfortunately there is no-one here to back people up, no law. The criminals have made themselves the law. They shoot at some soldiers, and it transforms them into representatives of the national struggle. That makes them unassailable and they can abuse anyone they want, particularly Christians who are weak already. That was my mistake. I didn’t see that clearly enough. But I don’t regret it.”

As first novels go, they won’t come much better than this for a reader like me who likes a
mix of a strong plot, good characterization and memorable characters, informative contextual history, good pacing, a balanced blend of action and dialogue which lacks overly thick description, and a story that stimulates my interest in a place and issue and stays with me long after I finish reading it. Most of what I know about the daily lives of Palestinians is gleamed from television news. Beynon Rees opens up their world beyond suicide bombers and the conflict with the Israeli state, providing a rich, multi-textual portrait of family life, culture, politics, and institutional structures as an integral aspect of the story without it ever descending to a sermon or it rising above the story of Omar and his quest to save George. What he makes clear is that, like every society, Palestine is layered and fractured, riven with as many internal differences as exist as between it and the society it supposedly opposes. Benyon Rees’ skill is to transport you into the sights, sounds and tastes of Omar’s world, providing a rich sense of place along with a riddle of a story (although I did have a fairly good idea as to the identity of the real collaborator a long way from the end despite the efforts to keep a few potential suspects in the frame – there were enough other twists though to make this an entertaining read to the last page).

It’s a week since I finished reading The Collaborator of Bethlehem and I’ve already discussed it with half a dozen people (usually in a discussion that also involves Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin – my review here). The second book in the series is A Grave in Gaza and I hope to purchase it shortly to catch up with the humane and slightly chaotic life of Omar Yussef and his family.


Uriah Robinson said...

This one sits on my TBR shelf and I definitely must get around to reading this series soon. I see you are reading the US versions as the titles were changed for the UK market.

Rob Kitchin said...

Yes, I should have said this book was lent to me by my friend John who lives in Boston. I actually think 'The Collaborator of Bethlehem' is a better title vis-a-vis the story told in the book than 'The Bethlehem Murders'. I also prefer the cover which captures the Christian/Muslim sharing of space.

Bernadette said...

This was my best read of last year - even though it made me cry. I adored Omar Yussef and the book has stayed with me long after I finished it. I recently read the second one (here it's called The Saladin Murders) and it is brilliant too.