An Ache in the Heart : THE HOPE, <i> By Herman Wouk (Little Brown: $24.95; 693 pp.)</i>
Balagan is a Hebrew word that can be translated as folly or fiasco or foul-up. Significantly, the word comes up again and again in “The Hope,” Herman Wouk’s ambitious historical novel set amid the wars that forged the state of Israel.
“After 3 millennia the Jews were exactly the same quarrelsome Israelites of the Exodus, with the same God, the same language, and the same national character,” writes Wouk in “The Hope,” “including the same ineradicable tendency to veer forever between the sublime and the balagan.”
Wouk uses the term balagan to describe the chaos that characterized the infant Jewish state and its ragtag army in the earliest years. But the term also amounted to a kind of unofficial strategy. Sometimes, as Wouk shows us, a balagan was just what Israel needed, as when a unit of Israeli armor somehow misunderstood its orders and raced to the Suez Canal in the last minutes before a cease-fire went into effect during the Six-Day War.
“You’ll get to the Canal by mistake,” one sly but intrepid Israeli commander is made to say.
“ B’seder ( OK ) , sir,” replies the dutiful soldier, “stupid mistakes are my specialty.”
“The Hope” is the latest in the series of grand-scale historical novels that have become Wouk’s trademark and life’s work. An Israeli officer named Zev Barak is the central figure of the new book, and he is the functional equivalent of Pug Henry, the hero of Wouk’s memorable World War II novels, “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”
Barak, a flawed but endearing man, happens to show up at every important event in the first 20 years or so of Israel’s history. Through Barak’s eyes, we see the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Suez campaign and the Six Day War of 1967, including both the valor and sacrifice of soldiers on the battlefield and the maneuvering of politicians and generals in the back rooms.
Instead of Roosevelt or Churchill, however, we have Ben Gurion, whom Wouk readily characterizes as “the Jewish Churchill.” Instead of Eisenhower, we have Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. And, now and then, Wouk tosses in a surprise--"The Hope” includes an apocryphal scene in which an enterprising Israeli officer finds a way to award a paratrooper’s badge to a visiting African general named Idi Amin even though the cowering Amin is too fearful to actually jump out of a plane.
Wouk revisits the miracles of military ingenuity, raw courage sheer chutzpah that have become the folklore of the Israel Defense Forces. In order to break the siege of Jerusalem in 1948, for example, a road is built by night under the eyes (and the guns) of the Arab Legion. And, when the fledgling tank corps of the Israeli army cannot makes its way through the desert to attack an Egyptian position, a Jewish general who knows his archeology finds an ancient Roman road long buried under the sands of the Negev.
“The Hope” also pauses to describe some of the less-celebrated but crucial moments in the history of Israel. For instance, Wouk’s account of the struggle between Ben Gurion and Menahem Begin over a ship full of smuggled arms, the so-called Altalena affair, allows us to see how close the new Jewish state came to outright civil right in the earliest days of statehood.
“I order you to answer fire with fire,” we hear Ben Gurion say, as he orders the troops of the Israel Defense Force to engage the Jewish fighters of Begin’s underground army, the Irgun. And, typically, Wouk harks back a couple of thousand years to give us a frame of reference.
“It’s 70 AD again in the Holy Land,” one character in “The Hope” observes. “You Jews were at each other’s throats, you know, when Titus captured Jerusalem.”
The action sequences are urgent and accomplished, but Wouk necessarily resorts to the practice of putting elaborate discourses on military and diplomatic history into the mouths of his characters.
“Yes, a Zionist Stalin isn’t,” explains Ben Gurion in one of dozens of set pieces that serve to explain the subtext of Israel’s military and diplomatic history. “He lets the Czechs sell to us, so as to kick the British out of the Middle East. That’s why his bloc votes our way in the U.N., too.”
Now and then, Wouk is moved to psalm-singing, as if to remind his readers of the momentous, almost mystical meanings that the pioneers of Zionism saw in their struggle to plant a Jewish homeland in the soil of the Holy Land.
More often, though Wouk contents himself with a set of highly emblematic subplots that punctuate the battle scenes. Zev Barak conducts an intercontinental affair of the heart with the seductive daughter of a key CIA official. A gangling young soldier nicknamed Don Kishote--the Hebrew pronunciation of “Don Quixote"--is torn between Shayna, a pious young woman from a strict Orthodox family, and Yael, a brash kibbutznik with as much experience in bed as on the battlefield. And Sam Pasternak, a high-ranking intelligence officer, is Don Kishote’s rival for Yael’s company--and, not incidentally, a pretext for inserting the other characters into the inner councils of war.
The title of Wouk’s book--"The Hope"--is the English rendering of “Hatikvah,” the title of the national anthem of Israel. But, somehow, the phrase loses something in the translation--the song itself evokes the heroic aspirations of the pioneers who founded the State of Israel, but it also summons up an ache in the heart over the lives that were lost in order to create and preserve the Jewish homeland.
Wouk’s book, too, loses something in the translation. At 78, Wouk is still a master of the historical novel, and--at nearly 700 pages--"The Hope” is a surprisingly fast read. And yet, perhaps it is a bit too fast. The heroism and the historical grandeur are well displayed in “The Hope,” but, somehow, the ache is missing.