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Damascus Gate by Robert Stone
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Damascus Gate (1998)

by Robert Stone

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Not for me, this one. It looks like I'm destined to return to A Flag for Sunrise whenever I want to experience the journey to the heart of darkness that Stone did so well. Some of his short stories are also masterful accounts of dissolution and ambivalent resurrection. But in this novel the metaphysical concerns I don't share overwhelmed the social and political ones I do. And the narrative and characters seemed pale imitations of that earlier novel to me as well. ( )
  CSRodgers | Nov 20, 2015 |
Damascus Gate is an unusual great novel because the constellation of characters who variously serve as its protagonists are comparatively uncompelling individual actors. The desultory freelance journalist Christopher Lucas; the half-Jewish, half-black, Communist true-believer and jazz singer Sonia Barnes; Raziel the polymath musician, former Yeshiva-boy genius, former Jew for Jesus; even the inspired and psychologically troubled Adam De Kuff whose Messianic vision drives some of the most interesting and redemptive moments in the narrative: all are dwarfed by the forces of history and religion that determine action and reaction throughout Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and shape the thoughts and desires of every character living in those places and involved in the events that unfold there. Each plays his or her part in a sprawling tragic drama that claims many lives before it temporarily resolves itself--in an endgame revelation of behind-the-scenes duplicity worthy of Le Carré--as a farcical conspiracy designed to serve secular political expedience.

The story's most engaging questions are where (or when; or whether) authentic experience blends into its counterfeit and how one is to distinguish between the genuine and its semblance. This distinction applies to religious faith and sectarian play-acting; ideological commitment and political posturing; a friend and a convenient acquaintance; love and something else. It would be exciting, for example, to read Adam De Kuff as the latest incarnation of the Messiah, yet one recognizes (thanks to the clarifying commentary of his psychiatrist, Dr. Obermann) that De Kuff is psychologically fragile and his Messianic convictions mere fantasies generated by manic-depression. Thus, De Kuff is deluded--or is he? Maybe his psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann, is a pseudo-scientific materialist incapable of perceiving the Divine Soul immanent in a disheveled, broken-down old man. At this point, the reader might recall Peter Shaffer's brilliant play, Equus, in which an adolescent boy's savage, aberrant love of horses prompts his doctor to question whether a normal psychological state is desirable if it cancels or precludes intense, transformative emotion: that is, ecstasy. If to be psychologically "normal" is to live a life that is dead to powerful emotion, is it not preferable to forsake the "normal" and pursue the unruly, free, all-consuming, mind/body/soul orgasmic experience? Lacking such intense emotion, is a person truly alive, truly human?

Ecstasy, however, is dangerous. In Equus, the boy's love is a confused amalgam of the religious and the erotic, a volatile psycho-emotional construction created almost by chance, that causes shame and precipitates a bloody atrocity. De Kuff's manic delusions prompt him to preach what many might wish to believe--that all faiths, all beliefs, all versions of the Abrahamic God are one--and what many others consider blasphemy. De Kuff's syncretistic pronouncements attract followers and, ultimately, precipitate a street fight that kills him and puts his chief disciple and sedulous handler, Raziel Melker, in a coma. Has Raziel really believed De Kuff to be the Messiah? Has his touting De Kuff to Sonia as the herald of a new existence been the latest chapter of revealed religion born of genuine belief? Is Raziel's destruction by an intolerant mob an authentic martyrdom earned and confirmed by this belief? Is De Kuff's? Or has Raziel just been egging-on a crazy old man and "selling" him as the Messiah merely as part of a private amusement or promiscuous con? After all, De Kuff's independent wealth finances not only his itinerant preaching but also Raziel's heroin habit. Did Raziel ever truly believe the old man's assertion that "Everything is Torah" and his further claims of spiritual oneness? Or has he merely feigned belief to win De Kuff's trust and lend legitimacy and excitement to the provocations he, Raziel, seems to enjoy enacting in the faces of all true believers, Christian, Muslim, and Jew?

Any reader's understanding of the novel can prosper from asking such questions about most of what is done and said in it. Also worth considering in this light is the character of Christopher Lucas, the American journalist who is resident in Jerusalem and nominally working on a feature story about "Jerusalem Syndrome"--a tendency for certain, perhaps especially susceptible or impressionable, visitors to the city to conceive an evolving sense that they have been chosen to act out or facilitate some highly significant, even miraculous event in the service of one religion or another. Although we may take Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome at face value, we also may wonder why he settles on this story when so many others--more urgent, more violent, more "glamorous"--seem to press on his attention. Foregoing the construction of a meta-fictional mirroring that would read the text of Damascus Gate (or large portions of it) as an unmediated, unedited version of the feature piece Lucas might eventually write (I am thinking particularly, of course, of the sections that focus on Raziel and De Kuff), we recognize pretty quickly that Lucas's interest in Jerusalem's diverse and disparate seekers is a simple displacement of his interest in himself.

Half-Christian, half-Jew, Lucas admits to being undecided about his identity and the nature of his belief, or even if he has any. He haunts Jerusalem, in part, to (re)discover who he is and might become, what he might believe, and why. In the course of investigating Jerusalem Syndrome, he canvasses local figures, like Dr. Obermann and the U.S. Counsel, Sylvia Chin, as well as intriguing (and obviously dangerous) foreigners like Nuala Rice and Janusz Zimmer (more of him later), who obviously know something about the phenomenon even if they do not call it by its somewhat tendentious name. In the process of doing his journalistic legwork, Lucas gets caught up in those very impersonal and indiscriminately destructive forces of religion and history whose psychological effects he is attempting to document and interpret. Discovering how these forces so easily deny personal agency to everyone who tries to think and act outside or apart from their respective contexts, Lucas almost gets himself killed.

A poorly-planned, chaotic excursion to the Gaza Strip, instigated by Nuala Rice and, with a separate agenda, Linda Erickson, ends with the murder (also by mob violence) of a young man, Hal Morris, who is acting under the alias "Lenny" at the behest of Janusz Zimmer and in confederacy with Erickson (formerly the wife of an Evangelical American preacher who has ended a suicide [or was he pushed?], Linda at this point is the girlfriend of Zimmer and a true believer in religious apocalypse). Lenny's death could have been Lucas's; like Lenny, Lucas finds himself chased by an angry mob that also is shouting Itbah al-Yahud! Separated from the women, helped by no one, Lucas escapes; is it by chance that his most heroic act saves only Lucas himself? Linda's subsequent report to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that Lenny, a Jew, could have been saved from the mob (a claim that circumstances tend to contradict) seals Nuala's fate as the scapegoat who must make amends with her life for shed Jewish blood.

Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome and any significance this phenomenon might ever have credibly possessed finally dissolves during those moments beneath the streets, when the plot to bomb the Temple Mount, so long rumored, seems on the verge of consummation. Janusz Zimmer is the chief agent provocateur, in league with minor operatives and mercenaries--a telling choice, as Zimmer also is nominally a journalist, yet, most unlike the curiously unprepossessing and often passive Christopher Lucas, willing to risk himself (for a price; no true believer, he) as point-man in a kind of terrorist's charade. The bomb is all flash and no boom; nothing is destroyed, no one is killed (De Kuff dies and Raziel is beaten insensate in the street) and the power-play of heretofore unknown (to the reader) Israel politicians succeeds simply because an attempt, always bogus, to bomb the Haram has been made. Jerusalem Syndrome? Nothing of the sort. It is the old game of political opportunism that sweeps aside self-interested civilians--unknowing, misinformed, naïve, blinded by desire in pursuit of private goals--as it seizes the initiative, and the moment.

Unless your undergraduate major was World Religions or you have since read-up the subject in both canonical and esoteric writings, a few narrative passages and some character-conversation will be more or less incomprehensible. Zoroastrian, Sufi, Gnostic, and Manichean notions compete with the several orthodoxies of Muslim, Christian, and Jew; Noah, Moses, and Christ, Jehovah and Yahweh (don't these names refer to one God?) and, yes, Azazel and Satan, share the metaphysical stage with Mohammed and Saladin and Teresa of Ávila, Serapis and Philo, Pico della Mirandola--and also Sabazios Sabaoth, Hermes Trismegistus, Elisha ben Abouya--and Salman Rushdie! Not to mention Marx; the Nazi apologist and historian Alfred Rosenberg; and, more implicitly, Freud, registering alternative interpretations of history and human consciousness. Although understanding each and every such allusion would be wonderful (and likely lead one to love the novel in its flattery of one's knowledge), some of this is just name-dropping for the sake of tone, as well as a shorthand method of indicating, The whole world is here. All beliefs, all ideas, everything humankind has ever thought and felt, said and done. And all of it is competing for recognition as the truth. Damascus Gate is a great, true, knowing book and repays any amount of attention the reader is willing to give it.

~JL ( )
  bookie53 | Jul 26, 2015 |
Damascus Gate is an unusual great novel because the constellation of characters who variously serve as its protagonists are comparatively uncompelling individual actors. The desultory freelance journalist Christopher Lucas; the half-Jewish, half-black, Communist true-believer and jazz singer Sonia Barnes; Raziel the polymath musician, former Yeshiva-boy genius, former Jew for Jesus; even the inspired and psychologically troubled Adam De Kuff whose Messianic vision drives some of the most interesting and redemptive moments in the narrative: all are dwarfed by the forces of history and religion that determine action and reaction throughout Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and shape the thoughts and desires of every character living in those places and involved in the events that unfold there. Each plays his or her part in a sprawling tragic drama that claims many lives before it temporarily resolves itself--in an endgame revelation of behind-the-scenes duplicity worthy of Le Carré--as a farcical conspiracy designed to serve secular political expedience.

The story's most engaging questions are where (or when; or whether) authentic experience blends into its counterfeit and how one is to distinguish between the genuine and its semblance. This distinction applies to religious faith and sectarian play-acting; ideological commitment and political posturing; a friend and a convenient acquaintance; love and something else. It would be exciting, for example, to read Adam De Kuff as the latest incarnation of the Messiah, yet one recognizes (thanks to the clarifying commentary of his psychiatrist, Dr. Obermann) that De Kuff is psychologically fragile and his Messianic convictions mere fantasies generated by manic-depression. Thus, De Kuff is deluded--or is he? Maybe his psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann, is a pseudo-scientific materialist incapable of perceiving the Divine Soul immanent in a disheveled, broken-down old man. At this point, the reader might recall Peter Shaffer's brilliant play, Equus, in which an adolescent boy's savage, aberrant love of horses prompts his doctor to question whether a normal psychological state is desirable if it cancels or precludes intense, transformative emotion: that is, ecstasy. If to be psychologically "normal" is to live a life that is dead to powerful emotion, is it not preferable to forsake the "normal" and pursue the unruly, free, all-consuming, mind/body/soul orgasmic experience? Lacking such intense emotion, is a person truly alive, truly human?

Ecstasy, however, is dangerous. In Equus, the boy's love is a confused amalgam of the religious and the erotic, a volatile psycho-emotional construction created almost by chance, that causes shame and precipitates a bloody atrocity. De Kuff's manic delusions prompt him to preach what many might wish to believe--that all faiths, all beliefs, all versions of the Abrahamic God are one--and what many others consider blasphemy. De Kuff's syncretistic pronouncements attract followers and, ultimately, precipitate a street fight that kills him and puts his chief disciple and sedulous handler, Raziel Melker, in a coma. Has Raziel really believed De Kuff to be the Messiah? Has his touting De Kuff to Sonia as the herald of a new existence been the latest chapter of revealed religion born of genuine belief? Is Raziel's destruction by an intolerant mob an authentic martyrdom earned and confirmed by this belief? Is De Kuff's? Or has Raziel just been egging-on a crazy old man and "selling" him as the Messiah merely as part of a private amusement or promiscuous con? After all, De Kuff's independent wealth finances not only his itinerant preaching but also Raziel's heroin habit. Did Raziel ever truly believe the old man's assertion that "Everything is Torah" and his further claims of spiritual oneness? Or has he merely feigned belief to win De Kuff's trust and lend legitimacy and excitement to the provocations he, Raziel, seems to enjoy enacting in the faces of all true believers, Christian, Muslim, and Jew?

Any reader's understanding of the novel can prosper from asking such questions about most of what is done and said in it. Also worth considering in this light is the character of Christopher Lucas, the American journalist who is resident in Jerusalem and nominally working on a feature story about "Jerusalem Syndrome"--a tendency for certain, perhaps especially susceptible or impressionable, visitors to the city to conceive an evolving sense that they have been chosen to act out or facilitate some highly significant, even miraculous event in the service of one religion or another. Although we may take Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome at face value, we also may wonder why he settles on this story when so many others--more urgent, more violent, more "glamorous"--seem to press on his attention. Foregoing the construction of a meta-fictional mirroring that would read the text of Damascus Gate (or large portions of it) as an unmediated, unedited version of the feature piece Lucas might eventually write (I am thinking particularly, of course, of the sections that focus on Raziel and De Kuff), we recognize pretty quickly that Lucas's interest in Jerusalem's diverse and disparate seekers is a simple displacement of his interest in himself.

Half-Christian, half-Jew, Lucas admits to being undecided about his identity and the nature of his belief, or even if he has any. He haunts Jerusalem, in part, to (re)discover who he is and might become, what he might believe, and why. In the course of investigating Jerusalem Syndrome, he canvasses local figures, like Dr. Obermann and the U.S. Counsel, Sylvia Chin, as well as intriguing (and obviously dangerous) foreigners like Nuala Rice and Janusz Zimmer (more of him later), who obviously know something about the phenomenon even if they do not call it by its somewhat tendentious name. In the process of doing his journalistic legwork, Lucas gets caught up in those very impersonal and indiscriminately destructive forces of religion and history whose psychological effects he is attempting to document and interpret. Discovering how these forces so easily deny personal agency to everyone who tries to think and act outside or apart from their respective contexts, Lucas almost gets himself killed.

A poorly-planned, chaotic excursion to the Gaza Strip, instigated by Nuala Rice and, with a separate agenda, Linda Erickson, ends with the murder (also by mob violence) of a young man, Hal Morris, who is acting under the alias "Lenny" at the behest of Janusz Zimmer and in confederacy with Erickson (formerly the wife of an Evangelical American preacher who has ended a suicide [or was he pushed?], Linda at this point is the girlfriend of Zimmer and a true believer in religious apocalypse). Lenny's death could have been Lucas's; like Lenny, Lucas finds himself chased by an angry mob that also is shouting Itbah al-Yahud! Separated from the women, helped by no one, Lucas escapes; is it by chance that his most heroic act saves only Lucas himself? Linda's subsequent report to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that Lenny, a Jew, could have been saved from the mob (a claim that circumstances tend to contradict) seals Nuala's fate as the scapegoat who must make amends with her life for shed Jewish blood.

Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome and any significance this phenomenon might ever have credibly possessed finally dissolves during those moments beneath the streets, when the plot to bomb the Temple Mount, so long rumored, seems on the verge of consummation. Janusz Zimmer is the chief agent provocateur, in league with minor operatives and mercenaries--a telling choice, as Zimmer also is nominally a journalist, yet, most unlike the curiously unprepossessing and often passive Christopher Lucas, willing to risk himself (for a price; no true believer, he) as point-man in a kind of terrorist's charade. The bomb is all flash and no boom; nothing is destroyed, no one is killed (De Kuff dies and Raziel is beaten insensate in the street) and the power-play of heretofore unknown (to the reader) Israel politicians succeeds simply because an attempt, always bogus, to bomb the Haram has been made. Jerusalem Syndrome? Nothing of the sort. It is the old game of political opportunism that sweeps aside self-interested civilians--unknowing, misinformed, naïve, blinded by desire in pursuit of private goals--as it seizes the initiative, and the moment.

Unless your undergraduate major was World Religions or you have since read-up the subject in both canonical and esoteric writings, a few narrative passages and some character-conversation will be more or less incomprehensible. Zoroastrian, Sufi, Gnostic, and Manichean notions compete with the several orthodoxies of Muslim, Christian, and Jew; Noah, Moses, and Christ, Jehovah and Yahweh (don't these names refer to one God?) and, yes, Azazel and Satan, share the metaphysical stage with Mohammed and Saladin and Teresa of Ávila, Serapis and Philo, Pico della Mirandola--and also Sabazios Sabaoth, Hermes Trismegistus, Elisha ben Abouya--and Salman Rushdie! Not to mention Marx; the Nazi apologist and historian Alfred Rosenberg; and, more implicitly, Freud, registering alternative interpretations of history and human consciousness. Although understanding each and every such allusion would be wonderful (and likely lead one to love the novel in its flattery of one's knowledge), some of this is just name-dropping for the sake of tone, as well as a shorthand method of indicating, The whole world is here. All beliefs, all ideas, everything humankind has ever thought and felt, said and done. And all of it is competing for recognition as the truth. Damascus Gate is a great, true, knowing book and repays any amount of attention the reader is willing to give it.

~JL ( )
  bookie53 | Jul 26, 2015 |
Damascus Gate is an unusual great novel because the constellation of characters who variously serve as its protagonists are comparatively uncompelling individual actors. The desultory freelance journalist Christopher Lucas; the half-Jewish, half-black, Communist true-believer and jazz singer Sonia Barnes; Raziel the polymath musician, former Yeshiva-boy genius, former Jew for Jesus; even the inspired and psychologically troubled Adam De Kuff whose Messianic vision drives some of the most interesting and redemptive moments in the narrative: all are dwarfed by the forces of history and religion that determine action and reaction throughout Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and shape the thoughts and desires of every character living in those places and involved in the events that unfold there. Each plays his or her part in a sprawling tragic drama that claims many lives before it temporarily resolves itself--in an endgame revelation of behind-the-scenes duplicity worthy of Le Carré--as a farcical conspiracy designed to serve secular political expedience.

The story's most engaging questions are where (or when; or whether) authentic experience blends into its counterfeit and how one is to distinguish between the genuine and its semblance. This distinction applies to religious faith and sectarian play-acting; ideological commitment and political posturing; a friend and a convenient acquaintance; love and something else. It would be exciting, for example, to read Adam De Kuff as the latest incarnation of the Messiah, yet one recognizes (thanks to the clarifying commentary of his psychiatrist, Dr. Obermann) that De Kuff is psychologically fragile and his Messianic convictions mere fantasies generated by manic-depression. Thus, De Kuff is deluded--or is he? Maybe his psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann, is a pseudo-scientific materialist incapable of perceiving the Divine Soul immanent in a disheveled, broken-down old man. At this point, the reader might recall Peter Shaffer's brilliant play, Equus, in which an adolescent boy's savage, aberrant love of horses prompts his doctor to question whether a normal psychological state is desirable if it cancels or precludes intense, transformative emotion: that is, ecstasy. If to be psychologically "normal" is to live a life that is dead to powerful emotion, is it not preferable to forsake the "normal" and pursue the unruly, free, all-consuming, mind/body/soul orgasmic experience? Lacking such intense emotion, is a person truly alive, truly human?

Ecstasy, however, is dangerous. In Equus, the boy's love is a confused amalgam of the religious and the erotic, a volatile psycho-emotional construction created almost by chance, that causes shame and precipitates a bloody atrocity. De Kuff's manic delusions prompt him to preach what many might wish to believe--that all faiths, all beliefs, all versions of the Abrahamic God are one--and what many others consider blasphemy. De Kuff's syncretistic pronouncements attract followers and, ultimately, precipitate a street fight that kills him and puts his chief disciple and sedulous handler, Raziel Melker, in a coma. Has Raziel really believed De Kuff to be the Messiah? Has his touting De Kuff to Sonia as the herald of a new existence been the latest chapter of revealed religion born of genuine belief? Is Raziel's destruction by an intolerant mob an authentic martyrdom earned and confirmed by this belief? Is De Kuff's? Or has Raziel just been egging-on a crazy old man and "selling" him as the Messiah merely as part of a private amusement or promiscuous con? After all, De Kuff's independent wealth finances not only his itinerant preaching but also Raziel's heroin habit. Did Raziel ever truly believe the old man's assertion that "Everything is Torah" and his further claims of spiritual oneness? Or has he merely feigned belief to win De Kuff's trust and lend legitimacy and excitement to the provocations he, Raziel, seems to enjoy enacting in the faces of all true believers, Christian, Muslim, and Jew?

Any reader's understanding of the novel can prosper from asking such questions about most of what is done and said in it. Also worth considering in this light is the character of Christopher Lucas, the American journalist who is resident in Jerusalem and nominally working on a feature story about "Jerusalem Syndrome"--a tendency for certain, perhaps especially susceptible or impressionable, visitors to the city to conceive an evolving sense that they have been chosen to act out or facilitate some highly significant, even miraculous event in the service of one religion or another. Although we may take Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome at face value, we also may wonder why he settles on this story when so many others--more urgent, more violent, more "glamorous"--seem to press on his attention. Foregoing the construction of a meta-fictional mirroring that would read the text of Damascus Gate (or large portions of it) as an unmediated, unedited version of the feature piece Lucas might eventually write (I am thinking particularly, of course, of the sections that focus on Raziel and De Kuff), we recognize pretty quickly that Lucas's interest in Jerusalem's diverse and disparate seekers is a simple displacement of his interest in himself.

Half-Christian, half-Jew, Lucas admits to being undecided about his identity and the nature of his belief, or even if he has any. He haunts Jerusalem, in part, to (re)discover who he is and might become, what he might believe, and why. In the course of investigating Jerusalem Syndrome, he canvasses local figures, like Dr. Obermann and the U.S. Counsel, Sylvia Chin, as well as intriguing (and obviously dangerous) foreigners like Nuala Rice and Janusz Zimmer (more of him later), who obviously know something about the phenomenon even if they do not call it by its somewhat tendentious name. In the process of doing his journalistic legwork, Lucas gets caught up in those very impersonal and indiscriminately destructive forces of religion and history whose psychological effects he is attempting to document and interpret. Discovering how these forces so easily deny personal agency to everyone who tries to think and act outside or apart from their respective contexts, Lucas almost gets himself killed.

A poorly-planned, chaotic excursion to the Gaza Strip, instigated by Nuala Rice and, with a separate agenda, Linda Erickson, ends with the murder (also by mob violence) of a young man, Hal Morris, who is acting under the alias "Lenny" at the behest of Janusz Zimmer and in confederacy with Erickson (formerly the wife of an Evangelical American preacher who has ended a suicide [or was he pushed?], Linda at this point is the girlfriend of Zimmer and a true believer in religious apocalypse). Lenny's death could have been Lucas's; like Lenny, Lucas finds himself chased by an angry mob that also is shouting Itbah al-Yahud! Separated from the women, helped by no one, Lucas escapes; is it by chance that his most heroic act saves only Lucas himself? Linda's subsequent report to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that Lenny, a Jew, could have been saved from the mob (a claim that circumstances tend to contradict) seals Nuala's fate as the scapegoat who must make amends with her life for shed Jewish blood.

Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome and any significance this phenomenon might ever have credibly possessed finally dissolves during those moments beneath the streets, when the plot to bomb the Temple Mount, so long rumored, seems on the verge of consummation. Janusz Zimmer is the chief agent provocateur, in league with minor operatives and mercenaries--a telling choice, as Zimmer also is nominally a journalist, yet, most unlike the curiously unprepossessing and often passive Christopher Lucas, willing to risk himself (for a price; no true believer, he) as point-man in a kind of terrorist's charade. The bomb is all flash and no boom; nothing is destroyed, no one is killed (De Kuff dies and Raziel is beaten insensate in the street) and the power-play of heretofore unknown (to the reader) Israel politicians succeeds simply because an attempt, always bogus, to bomb the Haram has been made. Jerusalem Syndrome? Nothing of the sort. It is the old game of political opportunism that sweeps aside self-interested civilians--unknowing, misinformed, naïve, blinded by desire in pursuit of private goals--as it seizes the initiative, and the moment.

Unless your undergraduate major was World Religions or you have since read-up the subject in both canonical and esoteric writings, a few narrative passages and some character-conversation will be more or less incomprehensible. Zoroastrian, Sufi, Gnostic, and Manichean notions compete with the several orthodoxies of Muslim, Christian, and Jew; Noah, Moses, and Christ, Jehovah and Yahweh (don't these names refer to one God?) and, yes, Azazel and Satan, share the metaphysical stage with Mohammed and Saladin and Teresa of Ávila, Serapis and Philo, Pico della Mirandola--and also Sabazios Sabaoth, Hermes Trismegistus, Elisha ben Abouya--and Salman Rushdie! Not to mention Marx; the Nazi apologist and historian Alfred Rosenberg; and, more implicitly, Freud, registering alternative interpretations of history and human consciousness. Although understanding each and every such allusion would be wonderful (and likely lead one to love the novel in its flattery of one's knowledge), some of this is just name-dropping for the sake of tone, as well as a shorthand method of indicating, The whole world is here. All beliefs, all ideas, everything humankind has ever thought and felt, said and done. And all of it is competing for recognition as the truth. Damascus Gate is a great, true, knowing book and repays any amount of attention the reader is willing to give it.

~JL ( )
  bookie53 | Jul 26, 2015 |
Damascus Gate is an unusual great novel because the constellation of characters who variously serve as its protagonists are comparatively uncompelling individual actors. The desultory freelance journalist Christopher Lucas; the half-Jewish, half-black, Communist true-believer and jazz singer Sonia Barnes; Raziel the polymath musician, former Yeshiva-boy genius, former Jew for Jesus; even the inspired and psychologically troubled Adam De Kuff whose Messianic vision drives some of the most interesting and redemptive moments in the narrative: all are dwarfed by the forces of history and religion that determine action and reaction throughout Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, and shape the thoughts and desires of every character living in those places and involved in the events that unfold there. Each plays his or her part in a sprawling tragic drama that claims many lives before it temporarily resolves itself--in an endgame revelation of behind-the-scenes duplicity worthy of Le Carré--as a farcical conspiracy designed to serve secular political expedience.

The story's most engaging questions are where (or when; or whether) authentic experience blends into its counterfeit and how one is to distinguish between the genuine and its semblance. This distinction applies to religious faith and sectarian play-acting; ideological commitment and political posturing; a friend and a convenient acquaintance; love and something else. It would be exciting, for example, to read Adam De Kuff as the latest incarnation of the Messiah, yet one recognizes (thanks to the clarifying commentary of his psychiatrist, Dr. Obermann) that De Kuff is psychologically fragile and his Messianic convictions mere fantasies generated by manic-depression. Thus, De Kuff is deluded--or is he? Maybe his psychiatrist, Pinchas Obermann, is a pseudo-scientific materialist incapable of perceiving the Divine Soul immanent in a disheveled, broken-down old man. At this point, the reader might recall Peter Shaffer's brilliant play, Equus, in which an adolescent boy's savage, aberrant love of horses prompts his doctor to question whether a normal psychological state is desirable if it cancels or precludes intense, transformative emotion: that is, ecstasy. If to be psychologically "normal" is to live a life that is dead to powerful emotion, is it not preferable to forsake the "normal" and pursue the unruly, free, all-consuming, mind/body/soul orgasmic experience? Lacking such intense emotion, is a person truly alive, truly human?

Ecstasy, however, is dangerous. In Equus, the boy's love is a confused amalgam of the religious and the erotic, a volatile psycho-emotional construction created almost by chance, that causes shame and precipitates a bloody atrocity. De Kuff's manic delusions prompt him to preach what many might wish to believe--that all faiths, all beliefs, all versions of the Abrahamic God are one--and what many others consider blasphemy. De Kuff's syncretistic pronouncements attract followers and, ultimately, precipitate a street fight that kills him and puts his chief disciple and sedulous handler, Raziel Melker, in a coma. Has Raziel really believed De Kuff to be the Messiah? Has his touting De Kuff to Sonia as the herald of a new existence been the latest chapter of revealed religion born of genuine belief? Is Raziel's destruction by an intolerant mob an authentic martyrdom earned and confirmed by this belief? Is De Kuff's? Or has Raziel just been egging-on a crazy old man and "selling" him as the Messiah merely as part of a private amusement or promiscuous con? After all, De Kuff's independent wealth finances not only his itinerant preaching but also Raziel's heroin habit. Did Raziel ever truly believe the old man's assertion that "Everything is Torah" and his further claims of spiritual oneness? Or has he merely feigned belief to win De Kuff's trust and lend legitimacy and excitement to the provocations he, Raziel, seems to enjoy enacting in the faces of all true believers, Christian, Muslim, and Jew?

Any reader's understanding of the novel can prosper from asking such questions about most of what is done and said in it. Also worth considering in this light is the character of Christopher Lucas, the American journalist who is resident in Jerusalem and nominally working on a feature story about "Jerusalem Syndrome"--a tendency for certain, perhaps especially susceptible or impressionable, visitors to the city to conceive an evolving sense that they have been chosen to act out or facilitate some highly significant, even miraculous event in the service of one religion or another. Although we may take Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome at face value, we also may wonder why he settles on this story when so many others--more urgent, more violent, more "glamorous"--seem to press on his attention. Foregoing the construction of a meta-fictional mirroring that would read the text of Damascus Gate (or large portions of it) as an unmediated, unedited version of the feature piece Lucas might eventually write (I am thinking particularly, of course, of the sections that focus on Raziel and De Kuff), we recognize pretty quickly that Lucas's interest in Jerusalem's diverse and disparate seekers is a simple displacement of his interest in himself.

Half-Christian, half-Jew, Lucas admits to being undecided about his identity and the nature of his belief, or even if he has any. He haunts Jerusalem, in part, to (re)discover who he is and might become, what he might believe, and why. In the course of investigating Jerusalem Syndrome, he canvasses local figures, like Dr. Obermann and the U.S. Counsel, Sylvia Chin, as well as intriguing (and obviously dangerous) foreigners like Nuala Rice and Janusz Zimmer (more of him later), who obviously know something about the phenomenon even if they do not call it by its somewhat tendentious name. In the process of doing his journalistic legwork, Lucas gets caught up in those very impersonal and indiscriminately destructive forces of religion and history whose psychological effects he is attempting to document and interpret. Discovering how these forces so easily deny personal agency to everyone who tries to think and act outside or apart from their respective contexts, Lucas almost gets himself killed.

A poorly-planned, chaotic excursion to the Gaza Strip, instigated by Nuala Rice and, with a separate agenda, Linda Erickson, ends with the murder (also by mob violence) of a young man, Hal Morris, who is acting under the alias "Lenny" at the behest of Janusz Zimmer and in confederacy with Erickson (formerly the wife of an Evangelical American preacher who has ended a suicide [or was he pushed?], Linda at this point is the girlfriend of Zimmer and a true believer in religious apocalypse). Lenny's death could have been Lucas's; like Lenny, Lucas finds himself chased by an angry mob that also is shouting Itbah al-Yahud! Separated from the women, helped by no one, Lucas escapes; is it by chance that his most heroic act saves only Lucas himself? Linda's subsequent report to the Israel Defense Force (IDF) that Lenny, a Jew, could have been saved from the mob (a claim that circumstances tend to contradict) seals Nuala's fate as the scapegoat who must make amends with her life for shed Jewish blood.

Lucas's interest in Jerusalem Syndrome and any significance this phenomenon might ever have credibly possessed finally dissolves during those moments beneath the streets, when the plot to bomb the Temple Mount, so long rumored, seems on the verge of consummation. Janusz Zimmer is the chief agent provocateur, in league with minor operatives and mercenaries--a telling choice, as Zimmer also is nominally a journalist, yet, most unlike the curiously unprepossessing and often passive Christopher Lucas, willing to risk himself (for a price; no true believer, he) as point-man in a kind of terrorist's charade. The bomb is all flash and no boom; nothing is destroyed, no one is killed (De Kuff dies and Raziel is beaten insensate in the street) and the power-play of heretofore unknown (to the reader) Israel politicians succeeds simply because an attempt, always bogus, to bomb the Haram has been made. Jerusalem Syndrome? Nothing of the sort. It is the old game of political opportunism that sweeps aside self-interested civilians--unknowing, misinformed, naïve, blinded by desire in pursuit of private goals--as it seizes the initiative, and the moment.

Unless your undergraduate major was World Religions or you have since read-up the subject in both canonical and esoteric writings, a few narrative passages and some character-conversation will be more or less incomprehensible. Zoroastrian, Sufi, Gnostic, and Manichean notions compete with the several orthodoxies of Muslim, Christian, and Jew; Noah, Moses, and Christ, Jehovah and Yahweh (don't these names refer to one God?) and, yes, Azazel and Satan, share the metaphysical stage with Mohammed and Saladin and Teresa of Ávila, Serapis and Philo, Pico della Mirandola--and also Sabazios Sabaoth, Hermes Trismegistus, Elisha ben Abouya--and Salman Rushdie! Not to mention Marx; the Nazi apologist and historian Alfred Rosenberg; and, more implicitly, Freud, registering alternative interpretations of history and human consciousness. Although understanding each and every such allusion would be wonderful (and likely lead one to love the novel in its flattery of one's knowledge), some of this is just name-dropping for the sake of tone, as well as a shorthand method of indicating, The whole world is here. All beliefs, all ideas, everything humankind has ever thought and felt, said and done. And all of it is competing for recognition as the truth. Damascus Gate is a great, true, knowing book and repays any amount of attention the reader is willing to give it.

~JL ( )
1 vote bookie53 | Jul 26, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684859114, Paperback)

In his earlier novels, Robert Stone has taken us to such hot spots as Vietnam, Central America, and that ultimate sinkhole of depravity we call Hollywood. This time around, it's Jerusalem. Given Stone's gift for depicting both political and personal embroilment--indeed, for making the two inextricable--this particular city is an inspired choice. For starters, Jerusalem remains a sacred destination for Muslims, Jews, and Christians and a hotly contested one. It's also a magnet for hustlers, fanatics, and millennial dreamers, a generous assortment of whom populate the pages of Damascus Gate. As always, Stone introduces a (relatively) innocent American into the picture--a journalist named Christopher Lucas. This career skeptic prides himself on his detachment: he prefers the kind of story "that exposed depravity and duplicity on both sides of supposedly uncompromising sacred struggles. He found such stories reassuring, an affirmation of the universal human spirit." Yet Lucas, a lapsed Catholic, has journeyed to Jerusalem at least in part to recharge his devotional batteries. And as he's slowly drawn into a terrorist plot--which involves drugs, arms smuggling, and a plan to blow up the Temple Mount--Lucas sheds his detachment in a hurry. Stone's novel functions as an expert thriller, whose slow, somewhat clunky wind-up is more than compensated for by a brilliant grand finale. It is also, however, a dogged exploration of faith, in which cynics and true believers jostle for predominance. "Life was so self-conscious in Jerusalem," the author reflects, "so lived at close quarters, by competing moralizers. Every little blessing demanded immediate record." It's hard to imagine a more vivid record of these mutual blessings--and maledictions!--than Robert Stone's.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:44 -0400)

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Jerusalem: where earth meets heaven, home to seekers and heretics, hustlers and madmen, dreamers and the faithful of every persuasion. In this holiest and most fractious city, where religion and politics are inextricably bound, a plot unfolds to bomb the sacred Temple Mount. Christopher Lucas, an expatriate American journalist, skeptical and searching, stumbles upon the Temple Mount plot while on assignment to investigate religious fanatics. Unwittingly entangled in the bombing plan is another American, Sonia Barnes, a Sufi convert and nightclub singer, who is drawn with Lucas into the dangerous intrigues surrounding the Old City. They encounter Adam De Kuff, an unstable Jewish guru; Raziel Melker, a strung-out Kabbalist who foists De Kuff into the role of messiah; and Jan Zimmer, a soldier of fortune routinely at the center of the world's flashpoints.… (more)

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