Death of a Monk, by Alon Hilu, trans Evan Fallenberg

Sex, lies and a road from Damascus to Jerusalem
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The Independent Culture

The year is 1840 in Alon Hilu's novel; the place, Ottoman Damascus. Aslan Farhi is a timid, unsightly youth. His father, Rafael, pillar of one of Damascus's most eminent Jewish families, hates him for his unmanliness. Aslan, equally abhorring his father, finds solace in secret visits to his mother's quarters, where she dresses him in her clothes.

His father eventually forces him to marry. During the wedding celebrations, he becomes enchanted by the dancer, Umm-Jihan. Confused by conflicting sexual desires, he is unable to consummate the marriage. Later, he discovers his sexuality in the caresses of a barber. This liaison eventually leads him to a café patronised by homosexuals. Here he meets first an elderly Capuchin monk, Tomaso, then Umm-Jihan.

Again, he is tormented by sexual disorientation. Then, on discovering Umm-Jihan is a transvestite, he accepts an assignation with Tomaso. Though this union is sublime, the old monk dies in his arms. Knowing that his homosexuality, punishable by law, would also ostracise him from his community, Aslan dismembers the monk and disposes of his remains.

The consequences of this panic are calamitous: the Damascene Catholics accuse the Jews of ritually murdering Tomaso. When Aslan, seeking vengeance for his father's odium and seduced by the handsome chief interrogator, agrees to testify against his family, the Farhi men are charged with "blood libel": the accusation that Jews kill Christians in order to bake, with their blood, the unleavened bread for Passover.

Death of a Monk is a fictionalised account of the historical event known as "the Damascus Affair". Though Hilu has altered some facts - another family, the Hararis, were accused of killing Tomaso while the Farhis were charged with killing the monk's servant - he remains faithful to events. However, his objective has not been to narrate what transpired, but what could have transpired. Since the fate of Tomaso remains unknown, this in its way is as good a theory as any.

Hilu chooses a 19th-century narrative style - beautifully translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg - and writes with great panache. The story unfolds plausibly and disturbingly. Aslan is characterised, with modern psychological insight, as a youth desperately trying to survive the severe trauma of homosexuality in a patriarchal society, who takes refuge in a world of fantasy.

Yet, for this reviewer at least, the neglect of the affair's historical context and repercussions in favour of Aslan's fantasies diminishes the potential power of the novel. The blood libel, following its first occurrence in Norwich in 1144 and despite Innocent IV's repudiation of it in 1247, caused enormous suffering to Jews. The accusation is rife even today in such countries as Syria, Iran and Russia.

Paradoxically, the Damascus Affair proved to be a watershed. Its eruption in a Muslim country, in relatively modern times, served to unite the Diaspora Jews against the murderous prejudice they endured. This, in the first instance, ensured the release of the accused Jews. But it also led to the creation of such organisations as the Alliance Israélite Universelle and, indeed, of the Zionist movement. Some 50 years later another blood libel occurred - in Kiev in 1911, the subject of Bernard Malamud's memorable novel, The Fixer. By then, few except zealots and irredeemable anti-Semites would believe in the accusation's truth.

Moris Farhi's novel 'Young Turk' is published by Saqi