The Deed, by Gerold Frank
by Gerold Frank.
Simon and Schuster. 317 pp. $4.95.
On November 6, 1944, in Cairo, Lord Moyne, British Minister of State in the Middle East, was assassinated by two members of the Stern Gang; the youths, aged twenty-two and seventeen, were subsequently hanged for the deed by the British. In this book, Gerold Frank—who has heretofore dealt (as the “as-told-to” biographer of notables like Diana Barrymore, Sheilah Graham, Lillian Roth, and Zsa Zsa Gabor) in psychological rather than political compulsions—takes it upon himself to become “the historian of such an event,” to attempt to discover and to explain “how such a thing came to be.”
A book dealing with terrorism and political assassination for the sake of the establishment of the State of Israel raises certain expectations, even when, as is the case with The Deed, it does not necessarily treat of the most important example of such acts. The King David Hotel, for example, was blown up in July 1946; Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish mediator for the U.N., was assassinated in September 1948: the Irgun would, on the whole, be a more rewarding object of study of the dynamics of terrorism than the Stern Gang. Nevertheless “the deed” raises crucial questions. We all want to know how such a thing could “come to be,” and Mr. Frank is surely entitled to concentrate on that fragment of the larger story with which he is most familiar (he attended the trial of the two boys). Indeed, the limited area he has selected might even have served to put the larger questions into sharper focus. From a book like this one, the reader seeks to discover, for example, whether terrorism was either directly useful in securing Jewish independence, or indirectly useful in forcing the Jewish community to become more militant. (One suspects that a disturbingly good case might be made for the latter possibility.) Jabotinsky was a foolish and irresponsible tactician but he knew one big thing: ultimately the Jews would have to fight. This was not always realized with sufficient clarity by the Jewish Agency and its leaders. Beyond this, terrorism raises more general questions which must be faced, since it is illegal activity justifying itself by a higher law, and assassinations provide a testing ground and a stumbling block for all theories of history which maintain that history is predictable.
This book could reasonably be expected, not indeed to answer such questions, but to help us deal with them. It does not. The author views the young assassins in the most simplistic and predictable way of all—as idealists pursuing a noble end by foul means. The means are foul on fundamentalist grounds, because the Bible says “Thou shalt not kill,” and Mr. Frank refuses, or is unable, to engage with the question in any profounder way. He does not see that the effectiveness of means poses problems more subtle and equally moral. Content with having discovered a fatal tension, an irreconcilable conflict, and therefore a tragedy, he proceeds merely to “tell the story” of the two boys. Comforted by the notion that historians ought to give only the facts, he thinks he is excused from exercising judgment. A question like “What effect did the deed have?” is a matter “for future historians.” Typical of Mr. Frank’s assessments is the one he gives of Jabotinsky: “. . . denounced by many as a dangerous adventurer, even a fascist, [but] praised by others as a prophetic statesman. . . .” Such abdication of judgment on all interesting matters is only apparently humility, because the author’s sympathy for the terrorists and antipathy for the British come through quite plainly. He sticks to the facts only when it suits his purpose, which appears to be the creation of a true tragedy written with Restrained Power, Olympian Detachment, and Noble Simplicity. When he wishes to, indeed, our historian of the event is able to tell us, for example, what went on in the minds of the actors, and even what they did when they were entirely unobserved. Though the author scarcely had the means for acquiring such information, we are told, for example, that alone in his office Lord Moyne was given to frequent sighing, and we are even treated to a transcript of his stream of consciousness on the last day of his life. He thinks thoughts like “Palestine, always Palestine,” and in one of those small, though infuriating evidences of the slapdash approach, we are told that he reckons November 1944 as the sixtieth month of the war, when it was in fact the sixty-third. As a historian, Mr. Frank does not trust history to be interesting enough on its own, and therefore comes to its aid with a barrage of gimmicks, including flashbacks, portents, and purple prose.
Such criticism would be merely churlish if the author had succeeded in bringing the two boys vividly before our eyes, in explaining to us what they were like. He would then have told us a human story of youths caught in the web of history. But this is done best in novels, and The Deed, attempting to be more than a novel, is a good deal less. The book exists somewhere between history and drama: the history is suspect because the author refuses to “play it straight”; the drama becomes impossible because the characters always talk as if they were Making History.
We never really find out what the two boys were like. We are told that the fundamental fact about them was their belief that by their deed they would change the course of history, but very little more is made of this. We are also told that they were products of their time, without being informed why so few other “products of their time” became terrorists. We are given adjectives that describe them: they were sensitive, intelligent, troubled, and so on, but they are never more than stock figures; they are described but they never come alive. This is not because there are not enough details in the book, but rather because there are too many. The author seems to have included everything he could find out, without any discernible principle of organization or selection.
In a welter of irrelevant detail (for instance, who sat next to Mr. Frank at the trial), there are bound also to be incidentally interesting things. The reader is struck again and again by the youth of those connected with the Stern Gang, its leaders having been in their early thirties and its members frequently under twenty. It is fascinating to discover, for example, that Bet Zouri, the older and more intellectual of the assassins, was an admirer of Kipling, Saroyan, and Jack London; and there are amusing glimpses of the British in a state of befuddlement—unaccustomed to such behavior on the part of their colonials. Details like these might some day be used by somebody to write a good book about “the deed.”
Mr. Frank has written a poor book, so crammed with stock situations, that one both dreads and anticipates its being made into a movie. The adapters will have an easy job, for when the characters are not speaking as if they were in history, they speak as if they were already in a movie. The Arabs refer to Allah, the British keep their upper lips stiff, and the terrorists are properly ascetic. The big scenes are included: initiation into the movement, complete with glaring flashlight in a dark room, chases through crowded Middle Eastern streets, plans made with great care only to be foiled by chance, the requisite courtroom scene, etc. Between the introductory note to the reader and Chapter One, there is even included a “Cast of Characters.”
One ought not to be outraged by a book so silly and confused. But when one thinks of all the well-meaning American Jews who will feel it their duty to buy the book and recommend it to their Christian friends—because such books are vaguely thought to be good for the Jews—one ought to feel ever so slightly indignant, and perhaps a little sad.