The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark is the third book I’ve completed for the Book Awards Challenge. In 1965, it was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Muriel Spark is better known for writing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was made into a movie in 1969.
This novel takes place in Israel and Jordan in 1961. Barbara Vaughan is a British schoolteacher, and a convert to Catholicism. She travels to the Holy Land to go on a pilgrimage, and to visit her fiance, an archaeologist at a dig in Jordan. Freddy Hamilton is an employee at the British Consulate in Jerusalem. Since Barbara was born half-Jewish, Freddy decides that it is too dangerous for her to travel to Jordan alone. Freddy arranges for her to tour Jordan in disguise. As a consular officer, Freddy travels freely between Israel and Jordan. In 1961, Jerusalem was a divided city so Freddy’s back and forth between counties essentially consisted of walking through the eponymous Mandelbaum Gate between East and West Jerusalem.
At the same time, the trial of Adolph Eichmann is proceeding in Tel Aviv. One of Barbara’s Jewish cousins, an international lawyer, is called to Israel to consult on the case. Barbara meets with him, and attends one session of the Eichmann trial.
And there are many other peripheral characters in this book. Unfortunately when each is introduced, there is no way of knowing if the character will be integral to the story, or not. While the story is interesting, the writing seems dated and stilted. The chapters are quite long, which makes the book seem disorganized.
Now, it’s not that this is a bad book, I just think it was written in a different style than we generally see these days with popular novels. It’s a bit dated sand lightly difficult to get through. The true value of The Mandelbaum Gate is reminding us that what we now call Israel was controlled, not too long ago, by Arabs who hated Israel. The book does refer somewhat to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, but also only in a rather offhand way. I have a hard time enthusiastically recommending this book to anyone, except as a curiosity.
Published in hard cover-Alfred A. Knopf 1965
Softcover edition-Welcome Rain Publishers 2001