Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Fine prose shines through thickets of propaganda

Refugee part: Sophia Loren

Lawrence Durrell and the Middle East? Yes, we've all read The Alexandria Quartet. But Shakespeare could produce Macbeth and the grotesque Titus Andronicus. Eliot could write Gerontion, yet turn patriot in The Defence of the Islands.

And Durrell, along with the Quartet and Bitter Lemons, managed to produce a pro-Israeli potboiler called Judith. Never heard of it? No wonder.

It's just been published for the first time and heaven have mercy. Come back Leon Uris and Exodus. It's the novel of the film of the same name, for which Durrell wrote an initial script. The movie opened to lacklustre reviews in 1966, starring Sophia Loren as a Jewish Holocaust refugee-kibbutznik, Peter Finch as a Haganah Jewish settler and Jack Hawkins as the lovelorn Major Lawton.

Uris wrote Exodus in 1958 as a Zionist epic, in which Bedouin Arabs are described as "the dregs of humanity". The film version, with Paul Newman, came out six years before Judith. They might have been co-authored.

But all praise to Richard Pine and the Durrell School of Corfu, who have now published the first edition of Durrell's novel; if it lacks historical integrity the author's prose shines through thickets of propaganda.

But, as Pine notes of the Quartet, "Durrell himself had far greater sympathy for the Jewish cause than for the Arabs", and in Judith not a hint of sympathy touches the Palestinian victims.

He does not even mention that the birth of the state of Israel caused the eviction and flight - the ethnic cleansing - of about 750,000 Arabs.

But Durrell understood the British in Palestine - their impossible attempt to balance the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish homeland with Arab rights - and he matches his outrageous bias with a devastating and, I suspect, all-too-accurate account of the last days of the mandate.

A British officer says: "We've made too many promises to too many people.

"We can't keep them all. I'm no politico, but I'll lay you short odds that HMG will funk it and try and crawl into the skirts of UNO." (As, indeed, the British did crawl off to the United Nations Organisation.)

Durrell puts its well himself: "The occupiers of Palestine, relieved at last of the burden they found so onerous, owing to their inability to tell the truth to either of the chief factions, or to honour the pledges given to both, now became almost deliberately slack in the execution of their duties."

But, as a narrative of Jewish wartime suffering, Durrell comes close to grandeur. Here is Grete, a Jewish woman divorced by her German husband and forced to work in a Nazi brothel, learning from a priest that her little boy, Otto, perished in Dachau: "The centre of numbness in the middle of her mind gradually overflowed to encompass her whole body.

"It overflowed like ink or blood on her carpet and she felt spreading through her a slowly expanding stain of something like amnesia. The phrase had turned her into a pillar of salt." Read on.

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