City of Secrets: Stewart O’Nan Navigates Post-War Jerusalem

Image © Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Stewart O’Nan is the author of fifteen previous novels, including West of Sunset, The Odds, and Last Night at the Lobster, a national bestseller and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Stewart joins Signature to share how the character in his latest novel City of Secrets grew out of his admitted ignorance of the streets of post-war Jerusalem.

When I began City of Secrets, all I knew about my hero, Brand, was that he’d survived the death camps and somehow come to Jerusalem and fallen in with the Haganah, the most moderate branch of the Jewish resistance. Like many survivors, he was there illegally, using false papers provided by the underground. He needed a job, so I asked myself, what kind of jobs do recent immigrants get, especially ones who don’t speak the native language? My first thought, having just been in Paris and New York, was: taxi driver.

It fit. Brand, in his old life, was a mechanic, and could keep an old Peugeot going. The underground needed eyes and ears around town, and couriers who could ferry arms, documents and operatives through the many British checkpoints around the city, which then, as now, was a prime tourist destination for believers from all around the world. The underground would sponsor Brand. In turn, he would do whatever they needed him to do.

The job is a good one for a main character. It keeps him active, out in the streets of Jerusalem, bumping into people, hearing rumors, stumbling onto situations. Being illegal, Brand’s always at risk, and as a fish out of water, he needs to learn the city — the way London cabbies have to memorize a book of maps called The Knowledge before they can get their licenses. And not just the physical city, but the political lay of the land, especially at a time when so many different splinter groups are fighting for control of what will eventually become the war for independence. The British aren’t his only enemy, and there are spies everywhere.

It’s a classic tactic: the author making his problem (my complete ignorance) his character’s problem. I had to learn the city too, and figure out what Brand’s position is in the underground. This way, the author, the character, and the reader are all learning at the same time, trying to navigate the physical and political labyrinth of post-war Jerusalem. When our knowledge proves dangerously incomplete, leading to terrible consequences, it’s no surprise. We’re green, all three of us.

The first thing I learned was that the Jerusalem of 1945, like the L.A. of 1937 in West of Sunset, is long gone. Between war and overdevelopment, the city has physically taken on a new character. Modern maps are useless, even those of the Old City. After the city was partitioned, the Jewish Quarter, including the Hurva Synagogue, was destroyed. After the war in 1967, the slums by the Western Wall were bulldozed, and street names both within and without the Old City changed.

My first task was finding contemporary maps of Jerusalem from 1945. Even those are problematic, most being British and riddled with inconsistencies, though, as a newcomer, Brand has to rely on the same guidebooks I did. For years, British soldiers and religious pilgrims used A Guide to the Holy Land, which its publishers updated frequently for tourists, and the foldout map included gives the reader a sense of how much empty space surrounded the city. Like L.A. in the ’20s, Jerusalem was ripe for development, builders slapping up tract homes that encroached on the desert to the north and west. The train station where Brand picks up many of his fares is no longer there, and the bus station across from the Damascus Gate.

City of Secrets - JerusalemThe gates of the Old City were a problem at first, but ultimately turned out to be dramatically useful. The streets and alleys of the Old City are narrow and winding, and in most sections traffic is restricted. In those days, as now, some gates like the Jaffa Gate and New Gate admitted cars, while others, like the Damascus Gate, didn’t. At the Lions Gate, taxis had (and have) a special dispensation to take tourists to the hotels along the Via Dolorosa. In early drafts, I had Brand going to places he simply couldn’t go. Once I discovered that the British used the gates as checkpoints, I’d found my opening scene — Brand with his forged papers and false-bottomed trunk waiting in line at the Zion Gate, my tribute to “Touch of Evil.”

As the draft process went on, I collected old guides and photos and maps (including the beautifully detailed 3-D one seen above), and as many contemporary accounts as I could find, trying to piece together that lost Jerusalem rather than rely on hindsight.

My goal, finally, wasn’t to know the city better than anyone could, but to know it only as well as Brand does, since for him — as for so many people living there now — it’s a matter of life and death where exactly he’s allowed to go, and why.