Kindred Spirits | Daily News


Kindred Spirits

Leon Uris
Leon Uris

‘Happy families read together.’ Bravo. You have just read the first line of my next novel – a first line that I hope will one day join all the other famous first lines in the world of books. Or, this might be the last time you will ever see the above sentence under my byline. Come to think of it, most families I know, regardless of whether they are happy or not, hardly ever read together. The easiest example, and the safest, for I know what I am talking about, is my family. The divide between the books my mother and I read and the books my father and brother read, is (hopefully) wider than the road to Lankapura. Not under any circumstance would one camp read a book that belongs to the other. Not openly, anyway.

And, yes. I’m grinning like Garfield after twenty-five servings of Lasagna. Although I criticize my brother’s taste for World War II battles won and lost, violence, suspense and plots that are so complicated, solving maths problems seems easier in comparison, there is one author whose books (that once belonged to my father) I borrow from my brother’s bookshelves and devour in haste, like an undercover secret service agent chased by enemy forces. And today, I realize I am going to blow up my cover with this confession, but Leon Uris is way too good, and precious, especially considering how he helped me to connect with other, esteemed, kindred spirits, to not be dragged into the spotlight.

Now to beg for mercy, from the die-hard Uris fans out there. I know, Leon Uris wrote books far worthier than the one I consider as my favourite. ‘Exodus’, ‘Trinity’, ‘The Haj’ are heavier, not only because they have pages over six-hundred in number, but in their content too, yet, for me, ‘The Angry Hills’ remains the best, for all the reasons the other books are not. It has a fewer number of pages, and the plot aptly satisfies the sensibilities of those who can claim kinship with the protagonist, the ‘bread and butter’ writer, Mike Morrison, for reasons they will discover for themselves when they read the book.

Leon Uris was never the blue eyed boy of literary critics. Most critics found fault with him for the lack of depth in his stories, but gave him credit for the strong grip he had on the reader’s attention even when he weaved political and historical strands into the story. Pete Hamill, reviewing “Exodus,” wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “It is a simple thing to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information….None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative. Uris is certainly not as good a writer as Pynchon or Barthelme or Nabokov; but he is a better storyteller.”

The most acclaimed book he wrote is ‘Exodus’ (1957) – the story of the birth of the modern nation of Israel. In 1958, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said Uris’ sweeping novel was “the greatest thing ever written about Israel.” They say tourism to Israel soared over the next few years. Decades later, “Exodus” became popular in the Soviet Union, where Jewish dissidents risked prison terms by circulating hundreds of underground copies. Natan Sharansky, whose high profile as a Jewish landed him in Soviet prisons for a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, wrote in his book “Fear No Evil” that “Exodus” played a critical role in his awareness of his Jewishness.

On a visit to Moscow, Uris was given one of the bootlegged copies of “Exodus” that had been circulated by Soviet Jews. It was inscribed with the message, “Thank you for reaching us.”

Just as Exodus brought Israel close to us, ‘Trinity,’ his 1976 novel gave life to events in Ireland between 1840 to 1916, proving that Uris was not obsessed entirely with Jewish themed work. Records reveal Uris was most fond of “Trinity” because of the story of Bobby Sands, the Irish activist who died in 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike to protest British treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland from the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Before his death, Sands said he had memorized whole chapters of “Trinity” and recited them each night to his fellow IRA inmates.

It is Uris’ talent to tell a story in the best way possible that comes to the fore, in his second novel, ‘The Angry Hills.’ According to Uris, the background and historical events of ‘The Angry Hills’ are based on a diary that he got from an uncle who served as a volunteer in the Palestinian Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force in Greece during World War II. In spite of being the average spy novel ‘Angry Hills’ is spiced with an unusual historical setting and laced with surprising dashes of romance.

What I find the most attractive apart from the triumph of “Good over Evil”, i.e. British Secret Service over Nazi Intelligence, is the fast space in which events take place that somehow fits the breakneck speed of our own lives. As well, the style seems a great deal like my own, which is perhaps almost always, unnecessarily rushed hardly ever leaving an event or a character, or as in these articles, a book, to settle in the mind of the reader before moving on. Yet, my aim is simple, and I detect the same motives in ‘The Angry Hills.’ There is no doubt that Uris’ wish is to grab the attention of the reader from the first word on the page to the last, as this is the best way to get the message across to the whole wild world, even reaching the hearts of the harshest critic. At the end of the day he might be condemned as a writer who does not deserve a place in the canon, but he would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that his books are being read and understood, in order to receive such a judgment.

When it comes to describing the plot, I dare not say a lot lest I dampen the appetite of the uninitiated. Suffice it to say, as stated before, ‘Angry Hills’ revolves around the American writer, Mike Morrison, a young widower with two children doing business in Athens on the eve of the German invasion. The innocent Morrison agrees to carry a paper to England for a Greek attorney. It turns out the paper contains the names of Greek double-agents ostensibly working for the Nazis. When Morrison finds the attorney is dead he becomes the target of the Gestapo. What ensues is a constant struggle to outwit the enemy and a constant struggle to determine whom to trust.

The book might not be the best spy novel ever written, but it is still worth your time. And I can guarantee that you will stay with the story until the end.

For, Uris succeeds where highbrow, sophisticated writers fail. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Uris’ books continue to be read as opposed to some classics that everyone praises but no one reads.

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