Unrest in the Middle East, and it’s only 1933: Jonathan Wilson’s novel ‘The Red Balcony’

Jonathan Wilson, author of “The Red Balcony”, a work of historical fiction. (Photo: Sharon Kaitz)

Professor at Tufts University and winner of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Jonathan Wilson has published his ninth book: “The Red Balcony”. This historical fiction follows Ivor Castle, a British Jew who becomes involved in the investigation into the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, who helped Jews immigrate to Palestine during World War II. With the promise of history, drama, politics and love, “Red Balcony” is a “no-fuss page-turner,” according to Molly Antopol, author of “The UnAmericans.” Wilson is bringing the novel to a reading at Porter Square Books on February 21st. We spoke with him on January 24 by phone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What prompted you to start writing “Red Balcony”?

There were a couple of things. I was looking at some pictures of Jerusalem at the beginning of World War II and I saw a remarkable photo of the Hotel Faust, which mainly catered to German tourists visiting the Holy Land. A swastika flew from the top of the mast of the Hotel Faust. I thought this was quite unusual, to see a swastika flag flying over Jerusalem. But of course, this was the newly installed German government, and the British were not yet at war with Germany, so you see the swastika flag, the new German flag, flying next to the Union Jack, the British flag. I thought, this is pretty loose and pretty fascinating, and what’s the story here? And so I started looking into it. The Jews were already being persecuted pretty fiercely as soon as Hitler came to power, but if you read The New York Times in 1933, the articles portraying Hitler as the nice new German leader were still on the front page. I was fascinated by this, and fascinated by this period. This is the third novel I have set during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. I was also drawn to this particular murder because it remains unsolved to this day, 90 years later, and is still a source of contention in modern Israel.

How did your own experience inform this story?

My own experience as a Jew growing up in England helped shape the awareness of Ivor Castle, even though we are talking about 1933, not the 50s and 60s, when I grew up. The twists and turns of different loyalties certainly inform the character, as they do me. I always felt that growing up Jewish in England, being Jewish was always at the forefront of my personality. It wasn’t until I came to New York that I started to feel that it wasn’t so important anymore, because there were so many other Jews around. It was a very different experience. One of the interesting things to me about Ivor in Palestine, where there’s a kind of Jewish state-in-waiting, is that he comes from England and leads a fairly comfortable life as a British Jew, but also on the receiving end of certain kinds of anti-Semitism. But when he arrives in Palestine, where there is a large Jewish population, he doesn’t really feel connected to them either.

What kind of research did you have to do?

I was lucky enough to find a book that was published two months after the Arlosoroff murder trial. It contained all the speeches that were given at the trial and all the relevant documents, so that was incredibly lucky. I also read a number of histories. I find the memoirs of people who lived at the time to be the most useful, because often what you want to get right as a writer are the cigarettes people smoked, or the coffee they brewed, or the beer they drank – the flavor of the place. You can read history, but I don’t write history, I write a novel. I did a lot of research over and over again in different areas. I worked on this novel for about five years.

What’s on your reading list?

I just read “Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré,” and discovered to my surprise that while a student at Oxford, le Carré was already working for the MI5 intelligence agency, where he infiltrated the local Oxford branch. student communists and reported on them. One of the people he reported on was my undergraduate professor at the University of Essex, the wonderful Professor Stanley Mitchell, and Carré betrayed him. There are letters apologizing many, many years later in an attempt to reconcile, so that was fascinating.

What do you hope the readers of “Red Balcony” will get?

A better idea of ​​how important this historical period is to understanding the modern Middle East. People often forget what the impact of British and French colonialism was in the Middle East after the First World War and what a complex picture it was. The conflicts that exist today were already present in the place almost 100 years ago. Palestine was essentially a sort of little outpost of the British Empire, like India in miniature, and is just a fascinating melting pot of events in terms of understanding what was to come. That being said, I also wanted people to enjoy and be involved with my characters and this barren world of 1930s Palestine. It’s a novel, and I think novels can often access different kinds of truths that maybe history can’t.

  • Jonathan Wilson reads from “The Red Balcony” at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Porter Square. She will be in conversation with Ravit Reichman, writer on Holocaust testimonies, law and culture, colonial law and the death penalty. Information is here.

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