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Posted: September 12, 2021

Portrait of A Spy is a powerful novel

Book Review

By Derryll White

Silva, Daniel (2011).  Portrait of A Spy.

“Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.”

-Anwar Al-Awlaki, Al-Quida preacher and recruiter.

I started this novel on the morning that bombs devastated Brussels, and the world continued on its red alert descent into chaos, hate and unimaginable loss. Not very far in the Eurocrats of Brussels were speculating that European integration was dying.  I was myself stepping on a plane headed for Portugal and Spain in order to explore a few of the European writing masters such as Lorca and Saramago.

Silva’s work, seeming prescient, was somewhat disarming.  Reading this novel again, I am stunned at how art can mirror the events of the world.

Daniel Silva is a very good writer, so he has that ability to make me examine both myself and the world around me.  His central character, Gabriel Allon, bringing both current politics and classic art to the page, always surprises me with the beauty and ugliness of the world I inhabit.

Just how much do you want to know about jihadists, Wahhabis and the war on terror?  Daniel Silva takes the reader through some of the realities of the clerical Muslim extremists, blending that with intriguing windows into the international art world.  He very cunningly exposes the stupidity career politicians bring to the new high stakes game of international terror.  The Brussels bombings highlight how quickly political fortunes change as masses of people die.  Silva makes the reader think of the slim possibility of politicians doing the right thing in such circumstances.

It is a bit of a re-awakening to again read ‘Portrait of A Spy.’  I had forgotten the gulf of difference between my world and the world of the male Saudi Arabian.  And I still cannot even conceive the world of a Saudi woman.

If Silva is to be believed, and I do believe him after doing some independent research, Saudi women have few rights and little standing. The knowledge awakens a sadness in me.  For many, their end is to be buried in the Wahhabi tradition as Silva says “in a grave with no marker, beneath the blistering sands of the Nejd.” Having grown older myself, I cannot help but look back on the lack of gender equality Canada has achieved in the last 20 years.

‘Portrait of A Spy’ is a powerful novel that will lead readers to ponder the world we presently inhabit and the future we inevitably inherit.


Excerpts from the novel:

THIS TIDE – Another article of faith lay in tatters that November – the belief that Europe could absorb an endless tide of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies while preserving its culture and basic way of life.  What had started as a temporary program to relieve a postwar labor shortage had now permanently altered the face of an entire continent.

THE FIXER – “Some of our ancient rabbis believed that when God was creating the universe, He placed His divine light into special celestial containers.  But it turns out creation didn’t go quite according to God’s plan, and an accident occurred.  The vessels were broken, and the universe became filled with sparks of divine light and shards of broken vessels.  The rabbis believed the task of creation wouldn’t be complete until those sparks were gathered together.  We call it Tikkun Olam, or Repair of the World.

WOMEN – “Women in Saudi Arabia know their place.  From the time of their first menses, they’re hidden away beneath a veil of black.  And heaven help them if they ever bring dishonor upon the male who holds sway over them.”

– Derryll White once wrote books but now chooses to read and write about them.  When not reading he writes history for the web at www.basininstitute.org.

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