Book review: Abraham Silberschlag – Armada of Zion

The Adam Roberts Project

Abraham Silberschlag, Armada of Zion (Velcro Books 2008)

[pp.477. $19.99. ISBN: 4321949312]

Armada of Zion is a book calculated to divide opinion sharply amongst its readership.  However well written, however compelling a storyline, however vivid the characters, this is a novel leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste for many readers.  But perhaps that’s all to the good.  Better a book to hate passionately or a book to love passionately than a book that is bland.

Alternate-histories usually change one small detail from history and follow the implications of the changed timeline that flows from that change.  Silberschlag’s change is bigger than many, but not outside the realms of plausibility.  In a back-story hinted at throughout the novel but only properly spelt-out towards the end, we discover that our history and the history of Armada of Zion were the same until the late fifteenth-century.  Then, in Silberschlag’s imagined universe, European Jewry suffered a much more comprehensive persecution than was the case in our world.  We know that the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and expelled from Spain in 1492, and that between these dates (and, of course, after them) Jewish communities in Europe and Russia suffered widespread persecution.  But after the Spanish expulsion, Jews made new homes for themselves in central and Eastern Europe.

Silberschlag, however, imagines a more coherent anti-Semitism from Renaissance Europe:  his Jews were not only kicked out of Spain, but denied a home in any European state at all.  Kings across the continent sign a declaration of non-tolerance, and all Jews must leave Europe, Russia and North-Africa.  Some Jews predict that this latest manifestation of prejudice will blow over, and suggest moving to Turkey or Ireland.  But a far-seeing Jewish leader, Moses Zacuto, foresees disaster and apocalypse for his people if they remain in Europe, and using various monies he assembles a fleet of two-dozen ships and leads a large population of pan-European Jews over the Atlantic to the newly discovered land of America.

This is a neat idea, and – just – plausible.  The book is set in Silberschlag’s alternate twentieth-century.  Europe, lacking the cultural and scientific input of its former Jewish communities, has languished in primitivism, and by 1970 (when the novel opens) is barely at the level of the steam-engine.  Its countries are brutish and quarrelsome.  With no Spinoza, no Marx, no Freud and no Einstein to provide enlightenment, its people have remained barbaric, superstitious and aggressive.  America, on the other hand, has been thoroughly civilised by its Jewish settlers.  It is now a coast-to-coast superpower, the United States of Israel, with gleaming cities, a vibrant cultural and spiritual life, and a harmonious relation between Native Americans and Jewish citizens.

There are, it seems to me, various problems with this.  One is the matter of the Native American population, and I’ll come back to that in a moment.  Another is the relative lack of communication between America and Europe over this 500 year timespan.  There has, we are told, been a certain amount of trade; American (or in the novel, the UTA, the ‘United Tribes of America’) philanthropists have attempted to bring humanitarian relief to the various plagues and famines that Europe has endured, but European anti-Semitism has festered and intensified since the ‘Declaration of Non-Toleration of Jews’ of 1600.  All Europe’s ills are now automatically blamed on Jewish interference.  One myth has it that Moses Zacuto’s people poisoned the water-courses of Europe with magic curses, or sent plague through the boy-children of all European royal families before leaving for the new world.  Any mishap or malfortune is liable to be blamed on ‘invisible Jews’, Hebrew ghosts or spirits that are thought to travel through the air (Silberschlag’s irony is that Jews do travel through the air – the more technologically advanced UTA flies jet-planes and even spacecraft over the heads of the ignorant Europeans).  Such Jews as travel to the old world run the serious risk of being burnt alive.  But, given European colonisation of America, could the two continents – in any timeline, even one so extreme as Silberschlag posits – really spend nearly half a millennium out of contact with one another?  Would such cultures diverge and evolve as radically as Armada of Zion suggests?

So much for Silberschlag’s back-story.  The actual narrative of Armada of Zion concerns nothing less than a full-scale invasion of Europe.  The still-Catholic Europe has been riven by war and tribalism for centuries, but by the mid-twentieth century most of the continent is under the military control of the Knights of Saint Aryus, a Prussian tribe of warrior-politicians.  Their military dominance is due in part to their willingness to embrace new technology;  with gold and oil, and trading via South America (Silberschlag is a little vague as to the constitution of the rest of the world) the Aryans have acquired some planes, and many more zeppelins.  They have declared a Holy Catholic War against the UTA, and have attacked the American East Coast with their balloons.  After the third attack on New Jerusalem (New York to you or me), the UTA can no longer sit idly by.  The normally peaceable Americans have been provoked into a response, and they assemble the Armada of the book’s title.

The main characters are three officers of the UTA army:  Abraham Fichmann, whose family are of German provenance, leads the invasion force.  At his side are two supporting figures.  The first is Anna Nozik, a woman of single-minded military focus (the UTA army has no prejudice against women serving alongside men:  the Prussians, of course, are more backward.  They keep their women in stockades).  The second is Dancing Hare, a seasoned Native American warrior who seems to be of Navaho descent, although on one occasion Silberschlag refers to him as ‘carrying the blood of fifty generations of  Chippewa braves in his blood’.  The Armada crosses the Atlantic with difficulty, but lands on the west coast of France, and advances slowly inland.  The UTA troops are heavily outnumbered, but they are more skilled at the arts of war and enjoy significantly better technology.

It may seem from this that the book is a crude piece of pro-Israel propaganda, but it is much more than that.  For one thing, the writing is throughout of a serious and literary ambition.  Sometimes the book is over-written, but often the style is beautiful, evocative, almost poetic:  and the world Silberschlag evokes becomes immensely vivid and believable.  The book’s very first sentence sets the tone:  the Armada of Israel is at sea, but instead of-say-a strong-jawed, handsome leader staring towards the eastern horizon with grim determination (or somesuch pulp cliché) the book opens:  ‘Beneath the blue oblivious sky the water sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.’  Silberschlag touches on this theme of ‘forgetting’ and ‘memory’ throughout the book, in a subtle but effective manner.  The leaders of the Prussian army are characterised with remarkable sensitivity:  Prince Otto, the overlord, in particular is shot through with contradictions, publicly echoing the conventional anti-Semitic statements, but inwardly full of admiration for the strengths and achievement of his enemies.  The prose is full of striking moments of beauty, especially when describing the cloudy grey of Northern Europe;  ‘above was covered by that sort of cloud that makes the sky look wrinkled’;  the sun, through gaps in the cloud-cover, ‘throwing harpoons of light at the green leviathan hills’;  a plane landing softly on ‘its band of stone’ at an airfield in France, ‘under a rusty salmon-coloured sky’ of evening;  a huge army of Prussians lined up before a battle, all of them holding their rifles before them ‘like the palings in an enormous fence’.

In other words Silberschlag is writing ‘seriously’ about the implication of his pulp premise.  The war is not a glorious triumph for Jewish superiority, the Prussians do not (or not all of them) come to ‘see the error of their views’.  This novel is not what Harper’s Review of Science Fiction, somewhat uncharitably, called it, ‘sheer Zionist wish-fulfilment’.  But neither is it entirely successful in its ambition to dramatise the workings of history by examining an alternate possibility.  Perhaps the whole thing is too close to the actual historical process to work:  as if Silberschlag has not fully-enough inhabited the inner logic of his own imaginative creation.  The book carries an epigraph on the title page:  ‘”Conscience?  That is an invention of the Jews”, Adolf Hitler’, which is a provocative way of opening a novel such as this.  And, in the later sections, as the beleaguered advance platoons of the UTA Army fight through central Germany, the inevitable citation of place-names – Warsaw, Auschwitz and so on – cannot but evoke their grisly associations for the reader.

Given that the shadow of the real-world holocaust necessarily falls across this imaginary world, I think Silberschlag’s treatments of his Native Americans is something of a let-down.  They seem to be equal-partners with the Jewish population in the North American continent.  UTA has no official religion, but most of the characters share a sort of Judaic environmental spiritualism that draws on both cultures.  In other words, the exodus led by Moses Zacuto in 1500 not only saved European Jewry from the holocaust, it prevented the near-genocide of Native Americans as well.  We may very well baulk at the unlikelihood of this – how did all the different and often opposed tribes of Native Americans manage to integrate in this fashion?  Why should this particular group of colonising Europeans act towards the natives differently to all the other groups of colonising Europeans in all our Earth’s history?  Even if we don’t think that, surely this is too cosy a set-up.  Of all the characters in the book the Native American ones are the flattest:  heroic, wise, handsome to a man, they seem cardboard compared to the complexities of the Jewish and European characters.  There may be a buried form of racism at work here, even if in inverted form.

More problematic is the way recent events in world history interact with Silberschlag’s fiction.  In interviews he had claimed that he planned and started writing his book before 9-11, and before the Second Gulf War; but readers coming to it now must surely read it in the light of those events.  For a Jewish writer to postulate what amounts to a ‘United States of Israel’ looks naïve in a world climate where anti-American and anti-Semitic groups regularly attack the USA in precisely such language.  Silberschlag is on the side of ‘humanity’, we might say; he is sensitive and thoughtful, but his premise could easily become fuel to the myriad terrorist and bigoted groups at work today.  On literary terms this novel is a very creditable achievement, though flawed: the story is gripping, the reader cares about the characters, and turns the pages feverously as the story goes on.  But as an intervention into a volatile ideological climate, the book is harder to defend.

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