Israeli spy Gabriel Allon returns in Daniel Silva’s latest Daniel Silva watched the televised images of Yasir Arafat’s chaotic funeral last fall from several different viewpoints. As a former Middle East correspondent for United Press International, Silva had covered the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict firsthand. Later, as a news producer for CNN’s Washington bureau, he had witnessed the false spring of the Oslo peace accords between Arafat and the newly elected Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin. Arafat’s grizzled countenance loomed large over events in the Middle East when Silva met his wife of 17 years, NBC correspondent Jamie Gangel, during a typical liquid press debriefing at the Diplomat Hotel in Bahrain. But what was doubtless foremost in Silva’s mind as the central Palestinian figure of our time was laid to unrest was the fact that he had just completed a thorough and scathing indictment of Arafat in his eighth novel, Prince of Fire.
“I was very much an Oslo person,” Silva admits by phone from his home office in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. “I had placed faith in hindsight, perhaps too much faith in the ability of Yasir Arafat. I believed Yasir Arafat wanted peace at the time of Oslo. I do not believe that now, and that is reflected in the novel.” Prince of Fire once again wrests from retirement Gabriel Allon, world-renowned art restorer and former Israeli spy whose three most recent outings (The English Assassin, The Confessor and A Death in Vienna) form what Silva calls an “accidental trilogy” concerning the unfinished business of the Holocaust. Allon, who turned his back on “the Office” after his son died and his wife was horribly injured, is here drawn back into the game when his dossier is found in the home of a suspect in a series of anti-Semitic terrorist bombings.
Allon’s mission takes him from Cairo to London, the French Riviera to the Jezreel Valley as he races to outwit a master terrorist, raised from childhood by Arafat himself, before he strikes at the heart of a major European city. There was, in fact, such a boy, Black September’s Ali Hassan Salameh, architect of the Munich Olympics massacre, who was killed in Beirut by Israeli intelligence in 1979.
Silva knew exactly where he would set his thrillers: “I’ve always been interested in the birth of Israel and the Arab-Israeli wars and the history of the Holocaust and watching these two peoples in this terrible death struggle. It’s been a lifelong passion of mine,” he admits.
But he never envisioned Allon as a series character when he introduced him in The Kill Artist (2000). In fact, when his publisher (Putnam) suggested the idea, he tried to talk them out of it.
“I said, that’s crazy, I can’t make him into a continuing character, the world is so anti-Israel, no one wants to read about this Israeli continuing character. Come on, it’s just not going to work. And they said, just write it.” Silva prefers the British spy school of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John Le CarrÅ½. “I don’t really read contemporaries,” he admits. “When I read, I read the great dead.” And Allon reflects this: his character is deeply divided, left-brain, right-brain, passionate about restoring the beauty of art masters, dispassionate about the killing that needs to be done if his young homeland is to survive. Silva prefers the battle of intellects to the spilling of blood. Suffice to say, Allon and George Smiley would have much to chat about.
“Yes, throughout the series, he hasn’t killed a lot of people; a lot of it is more referred to. He doesn’t do a lot of blood work in these novels, by choice. I learned quickly that bang-bang and twisty thriller plots just aren’t enough; I needed to do more in order to keep myself satisfied as a writer.” After four straight Gabriel Allon novels, Silva admits it’s time for a vacation from his art restorer. “I could use a little break from him,” he says. “I would like to explore some other sorts of material. I have a lot of respect for the character and the characters around him, particularly [master spy] Ari Shamron, and I’m reluctant to let it just go on and on and run the risk of the character becoming stale. My intention is to take a break for a book or two and then see what happens.” Working within the context of a young nation like Israel has forced Silva to reach some hard personal conclusions about the ongoing conflict. Did bringing Arafat into his fiction present difficulties? “Yes. Had Yasir Arafat accepted the deal that was offered to him at Camp David, this book would never have been written. I had to look hard at the evidence and spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I came to the conclusion that Yasir Arafat in word and deed and in the way he gave money to families who produced suicide bombers and the way he used the state media of the Palestinian authority had a direct hand in terrorism against Israel during the quote-unquote peace process, and that he viewed the peace process as part of the phased strategy of destroying the state of Israel. That is my personal conclusion, that he was not serious about reaching a peace settlement with the Israelis.” In Silva’s view, the Middle East struggle may be “a problem without a solution.” This melancholy assessment permeates Prince of Fire. But the author has no doubts about the bloody legacy of Yasir Arafat.
“I personally believe that Yasir Arafat and his terrorist organization, Black September, showed the bin Ladens of the world the way. These guys were the ones who perfected the high-profile international spectacular like Munich and the airline hijackings and all the rest. I’m afraid this is Yasir Arafat’s legacy: he and his guys were fantastic terrorists.” Jay MacDonald writes from Mississippi.