Last week in this (cyber)space, I started to explain why I’ve turned to historical fiction, after previously writing a book of nonfiction and my four Palestinian crime novels. I wrote that historical fiction casts today’s deepest issues in an unexpected (historical) context and can therefore make us see them anew. It’s also a dramatic way of posing timeless questions, including the sacrifices that must be made for love.
Naturally I’ve been doing a lot of reading in historical fiction. It’s part of what made me want to write about Mozart and Caravaggio, rather than Caravaggio, my Palestinian sleuth. Mostly I find those historical works inspiring. From the class of Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel “A Place of Greater Safety” to the brilliant grittiness of “Libra,” Don Delillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald story.
But there are times when I see flaws in the way history is used by some writers in the genre. Instead of digging deep for the drama of a historical period, they go for the most obvious kind of drama.
Take Jews, for instance.
A few months ago, I was reading a rather flabby novel about the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The arch-Catholic Knights of the Order of Saint John are engaged in a death struggle against the hordes of the Ottoman Sultan. Then suddenly into the midst of the book sails a subplot about crypto-Jews hiding in a cave on the island. They befriend a Maltese girl who, in turn, tries to persuade the Grand Master of the Knights to save the Jews. In reality, the Knights would’ve imprisoned the Jews and ransomed them to the Jewish community of Venice, but that isn’t what got on my nerves.
Rather it was that Jews make for an easy hit of emotion and drama for writers of historical fiction. Just as contemporary writers go for 9/11-related themes when they want to invest their bland narratives with broad, inspirational impact. It’s reaching for a topic that isn’t yours, that doesn’t touch you, just because it’ll make your work seem important and weighty. Instead of delving deeper into their spiritual reservoir, these historical novelists toss in a Jew, spin a few quotes from the Talmud, and face the Jews off against some averagely seething anti-Semite. Bingo, a plot with vim.
What’s more, the Jews of these novels are entirely flat. That’s because they aren’t there due to any burning connection felt by the author. They’re just plot twisters tossed in for cheap drama. In combination with today’s political correctness, that’s why the Jews in these historical novels come across as such absolute good guys. After hundreds of years of the reverse treatment, maybe it’s time Jews got an angelic rap. But they can’t all have been nice guys who only wanted to study the holy books and keep kosher, can they? Yet most contemporary historical fiction shows them that way. (I’ve lived in Jerusalem 14 years, and I’ve met a few who weren’t quite such prizes.)
I’ve written a historical novel set in Vienna in 1791 which will be out next year. It’s about Mozart. There are no Jews in it. I’m completing the manuscript of another Jewless historical novel even as I write these lines. It’s about Caravaggio. Believe me, I could’ve taken the easy way out and dropped in a suffering Jew—after so many years in Jerusalem I know a few things about Judaism and the sufferings of the Jews who live here today. But it shouldn’t be hard work to find drama in wild historical times, often with more depth, once you look beyond the obvious torment of the Jews.
I like to make it hard for myself. That’s also what makes it real.