Roth on the tightrope between fact, fiction

Dave Edelman

October 11, 1993|By Dave Edelman

OPERATION SHYLOCK. By Philip Roth. Simon & Schuster. 398 pages. $23.00.

Jerusalem is the land of contradictions. It's the city of the hunted and oppressed that has inspired countless acts of violence and oppression, the city that several of the world's largest and most conflicting religions claim as holy ground, the city that's at the heart of the notion of paradox -- Israel: contender with God.

It's also the city chosen as the setting of Philip Roth's latest exercise in self-analysis, "Operation Shylock." The novel asks why it is that American Jews -- the so-called "normalized" Jews like Mr. Roth -- can both revere and detest Israel at the same time. Is there a real truth about the Holy Land and the people who support it, or is truth simply in the eye of the beholder?

"Operation Shylock" provides no easy answers. The book itself, like several of Mr. Roth's novels, walks the tightrope between fact and fiction. It's written in first-person confessional style and built on the foundation of factual events; yet a disclaimer at the book's end insists that "Shylock" is pure invention. To confuse matters even more, Mr. Roth has claimed in public that he really did conduct a top-secret spy mission for the Israelis.

There is an intriguing plot. The author, recovering from a mental breakdown caused by a dangerous painkiller, travels to Israel to interview colleague Aharon Appelfeld for the New York Times Review of Books. He discovers, however, that another Philip Roth has gotten there before him and has been preaching anti-Israeli doctrine in his name.

According to the other Roth, the Jews must abandon the concept of Zionism and return to their homelands in Europe before Israel disgraces the entire religion. The narrator Roth is upset that his name is being used for political purposes -- especially political purposes he doesn't agree with -- and goes out to confront his doppelganger. He discovers that the "fake" Philip Roth is virtually indistinguishable from the "real" Philip Roth and that people are buying the ruse. The impostor refuses to back down from his impersonation, claiming to be a martyr for the cause of the Jewish diaspora.

The views espoused by "Philip Roth" quickly come to the attention of both Israeli and Palestinian intelligence, and soon the author can no longer distinguish reality from subterfuge. As a high-profile Jewish figure, narrator Roth begins to suspect that he is being ensnared by both Israelis and Palestinians into working for their causes. Innocent encounters begin to seem like carefully crafted plots designed to sway his opinion.

To top things off, this all occurs at a time of increasing tension between Arab and Jew. Israel is involved in the trial of John Demjanjuk. The legitimacy of many Jewish and Palestinian claims about Israel rests on whether Demjanjuk is really a monster finally being brought to justice or a poor immigrant being subjected to a sham trial.

For Philip Roth, the final truth in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there isn't any. Israel is both a paradise for the Jews and a nightmare for the Palestinians; Demjanjuk is both a model American citizen and a Nazi butcher, and the Israeli intelligence agency is both manipulative and deceitful and a noble institution. If there is any simpler truth, the author concludes, it cannot be deduced from the evidence that is now before us.

In "Operation Shylock," Philip Roth does discover one truth about himself and the Jewish people. It was stated by the late Bernard Malamud: "If you ever forget you're a Jew, a gentile will remind you." In other words, Jews will always be Jews before they are anything else -- especially in Israel.

Dave Edelman is a Baltimore writer.

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