Unrest in the Middle East, and it’s just 1933: Jonathan Wilson’s novel ‘The Red Balcony’ (corrected)
With a decades-long career that includes working as an emeritus professor at Tufts University and a 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 of the now decades-old murder of Haim Arlosoroff, who helped Jews immigrate to Palestine. With the promise of history, drama, politics and love, “The Red Balcony” is “a flat-out page turner” according to Molly Antopol, author of “The UnAmericans.” Wilson brings the novel to a reading at Porter Square Books on Feb. 21. We talked with him Jan. 24 by phone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to begin writing “The Red Balcony”?
There were a couple of things. I was looking at some pictures of Jerusalem in the beginning of the Nazi regime and I saw an extraordinary photograph of the Hotel Faust, which largely catered to German tourists who were on visits to the Holy Land. Flying from the masthead of the hotel Faust was a swastika. I thought that this was quite extraordinary, to see the swastika flag flying over Jerusalem. But of course, this was a recently established new German government, and the British were not yet in a war with Germany, and so you see the swastika flag, the new German flag, flying next to the Union Jack, the British flag. I thought, this is quite unhinged and quite fascinating, and what’s the story here? And so I began to research it. The Jews had already begun to be quite heavily persecuted as soon as Hitler came to power, but if you read The New York Times in 1933, articles presenting 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’ve set during the British Mandate period in Palestine. I was also drawn to this particular murder because it has remained unsolved to this day, 90 years later, and it’s still a source of contention in contemporary Israel.
How did your own experience affect this story?
My own experience as a Jew growing up in England helped form the consciousness of Ivor Castle, even though we’re talking about 1933 and not the ’50s and ’60s, when I grew up. Pulls and tugs of different loyalties certainly inform the character, as well as me. I always felt that growing up Jewish in England, being Jewish was always in the foreground of my personality. It was only when I came to New York that I began to feel that it didn’t matter very much anymore, because there were so many other Jewish people around. It was a very different experience. One of the interesting things to me about Ivor in Palestine, where there’s the sort of Jewish-state-in-waiting, is that he comes from England having led quite a comfortable life as a British Jew, but also on the receiving end of certain sorts of antisemitism. But when he arrives in Palestine, where there’s a large Jewish population, he doesn’t really feel connected to them either.
What sort of research did you have to do?
I was fortunate to find a book that was published two months after the Arlosoroff murder trial. It contained all the speeches that had been made at the trial and all the relevant documents, so that was an incredible stroke of luck. I read a number of histories as well. I find memoirs of people who lived through that time most useful, because often what you want to get right as a novelist is the cigarettes that the people smoked, or the coffee that they made, or the beer that they were drinking – the flavor of the place.You can read the history, but I’m not writing a history, I’m writing a novel. I did a great deal of research over and over again in various different areas. I worked on this novel for about five years.
What’s on your reading list?
I just read “A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré,” and discovered to my astonishment that while le Carré was in Oxford as a student, he was already working for the intelligence agency MI5, where he infiltrated the local chapter of Oxford student communists and reported on them. One of the people he reported on was a professor of mine from when I was an undergraduate at the University of Essex, a wonderful professor Stanley Mitchell, and Carré betrayed him. There are letters where he apologizes many, many years later in an attempt to reconcile, so that was fascinating.
What do you hope “Red Balcony” readers come away with?
A better idea of how important this historical period is to an understanding of the contemporary Middle East. People often forget what the impact was of British and French colonialism in the Middle East after the First World War and what a complex picture this was. The conflicts that exist today were already present and in place almost 100 years ago. Palestine was essentially a sort of small outpost of the British empire, like India in miniature, and it’s just a fascinating crucible of events in terms of understanding what was to come. Given that, I also wanted people to enjoy and become involved with my characters and the world of Palestine in the 1930s. It’s a novel, and I think that often novels can access different kinds of truths that maybe histories can’t.
- Jonathan Wilson reads from “The Red Balcony” at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Porter Square. He’ll be in conversation with Ravit Reichman, a writer on Holocaust testimony, law and culture, colonial law and capital punishment. Information is here.
This post was updated Feb. 1, 2023, with changes agreed on by the author and interviewer, including the removal of a term already commented on by a reader.
I have not read “the Red Balcony” but tat being said, I am nervous about works of fiction that suggest they will shed light on current conditions in Palestine. What are the implications of the statement that Palestine in the 1930s was a barren world? There were more than 800,000 Arabs living in Palestine in the 1930s. The fiction that this “barren” world existed where there was a “Jewish state-in-waiting” seems to be a central notion of a Zionist “right” of occupation. The “truths” of this fictional novel may, unfortunately, serve to distort the real facts of history. The truth is that the Israeli occupation must end.