No smooth operator

In Yishai Sarid’s second novel a spy tries to come to terms with his motives for doing what he does.

Yishai Sarid book 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Yishai Sarid book 521
(photo credit: MCT)
Perhaps aptly, the nameless antihero and narrator of Yishai Sarid’s espionage thriller Limassol lives permanently in the present. His work as an operative for the Israeli domestic security services leaves him with little room for reflection; when he does pause for thought, his ruminations are invariably bitter and tinged with resentment towards the perpetual “us against them” construct. The “them,” however, incorporates a wider class of individuals than the security threats that dominate his waking thoughts: “The normal talk of people like them, who have no responsibility, do not have to get their hands dirty.”
Our narrator does get his hands dirty, very dirty in fact. While he does not wear this responsibility lightly, he never succeeds in articulating to himself what precisely it entails. So he allows his work to occupy his every waking thought, at the expense of his fraying relationship with his wife, who slips into the category of “them” because of her ingratitude about his work.
Haim, his observant boss, warns him of the dangers of allowing his work to overtake his life. “You’ve got to rest sometimes,” Haim cautions, “clean your head, think of other things. At least on the Sabbath... Forbidden to mix prayers with foreign thoughts.”
Limassol, Sarid’s second novel and the first to be translated into English, inhabits a recognizable landscape of moral dilemma, of complex challenges shoehorned into a reductionist construct of good guys against bad guys. But this construct only begins to become apparent to our narrator after Haim assigns him with an unlikely mission: to nurture a relationship with Daphna, a left-leaning writer and close friend of Hani, a well-known Palestinian poet dying of cancer in Gaza. Neither Daphna nor Hani is the ultimate target, however.
The intention is that they in turn will create a path to Hani’s son, the notorious mastermind of terrorist outrages.
Taunt, tight, well paced, Limassol works primarily because Sarid does not allow himself to become trapped by the clichés of the thriller genre, but rather allows enough room to chart the emotional journey of his principal. Our unnamed narrator – a man of action rather than words – must dissemble, rely on subterfuge and patience to ingratiate himself into Daphna’s world. As he does so, the certitude that he takes from his work gradually unravels, as he comes into closer contact with Daphna, her drug-dependent son and ultimately with Hani, who is softspoken and wasting away but still possesses an iron-clad moral certainty.
“Reason alone doesn’t work. Reason has no place in their work, and it has no place in ours,” he insists to his therapist. But gradually, he is forced to confront a fundamental contradiction of his own life; it is not so much what he does, but why? And for whom? The answers elude him.
There is a certain predictability to the denouement of Sarid’s book, but nonetheless it remains a charged read until the very end. The focus on the interior landscape of his principal introduces a convincingly claustrophobic intensity to the narrative.
There are no easy answers to the conundrums posed in the book, but then, there are no easy questions either.
An aside: Barbara Hershey’s translation, despite the occasional misstep – rendering the Jaffa neighborhood of Ajami as Agami, and Ofra Haza as Oprah Hezer – is competent and effective. However, occasional throwaway comments in the text, about Uri Zohar or the Golani Brigade for instance, highlight a challenge in translated fiction.
Broadly speaking, the intended readership of a translated book is not immersed in the native culture of the original language. It is fair to assume that readers hope to take away from the fiction something that they didn’t know before. In this context, Limassol, with its stripped-down and spare narrative, perhaps does not work quite as well in English as it would with a Hebrew readership.
This is not the author’s fault, nor is it the translator’s, but one suspects that perhaps a short introduction or afterword might have given the book context for the reader to work with.