Robert Stone’s concern with the need to believe, to love, and to transcend ideologies recurs in all of his novels. Damascus Gate, however, treats this familiar theme in an epic format and with amazing élan. In the hands of a lesser writer, integrating such an enormous number of characters within a coherent plot would in itself be daunting. Stone imposes an even greater burden on himself by making the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions within his characters the very heart of his novel. Plot and purpose drive the narrative rather than display of process, the prevailing characteristic of postmodern fiction. Despite the rich allusiveness, the mythic, literary, and religious tropes, even the hidden humor, Damascus Gate combines the humanity of Salman Rushdie with intrigue equal to that of John Le Carré. Still, it remains at its essence a characteristic Stone novel.
Its hypothesis is clear from the outset. Jerusalem is a magnet for extremes and contradictions. Those most drawn to the city often have contradictory, extreme, and self-destructive elements within their own personalities and backgrounds. This makes Jerusalem a flash point for disaster and deliverance, hatred and love, treachery and devotion. Often, classifying a single event as good or evil depends merely upon perspective. This is not, however, mere relativism.
Christopher Lucas, the central character of the novel, acutely feels these contradictions within himself as he watches the ravings of a majnoon, a religious lunatic, in the shadow of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. The majnoon joins together an enormous string of curses and obscenities until his final imprecation to heaven makes his obscene litany almost a prayer, a final act of faith that distills the sum of human pain. The clergy of the various denominations of the Anastasis, the church constructed on what is by legend the site of Jesus Christ’s tomb, frantically shut the doors of their chapels to keep out the madman. A posse of Greek Orthodox clergy forcibly expel the madman into the waiting arms of Israeli police, even as the majnoon calls the Anastasis a den of thieves.
Ironically, this wild scene recalling Christ amid the moneychangers takes place on Easter Sunday; it occurs in variation later in the novel with Lucas as majnoon-Christ. On Easter in Jerusalem, human nature renews its perversity amid its annual celebration of transcendence. The new Christ is merely a majnoon, as indeed the founder of Christianity must have seemed to the religious establishment of the day.
Stone’s aptly named hero perceives his own affinity to the madman. He is a journalist turned writer of books who has traveled as much as the saint of his first name. His writer’s powers of observation and his sympathy with the pathetic state of humanity have made him a modern physician of souls, like St. Luke. He understands that the suffering of Christ stands in direct relation to his own pain and that of the human race.
Lucas’s unusual family background has heightened his sensitivity to human suffering even as it has exacerbated his personal dilemma. He is the illegitimate son of a devout but non- practicing Catholic mother who was a singer of classical art songs and a humanist Jewish father, a Columbia University professor whose visits Lucas barely remembers. Lucas attended Catholic schools, but he remembers principally that a boy surnamed English called him a “Jewish bastard.” He is acutely aware that to Orthodox Jews he is not a Jew at all. As early as the incident with English, Lucas had realized that he was not in spirit one of the Catholic schoolboys. In short, Lucas feels that he is everything human, yet not part of any community of humanity. He wonders sadly with whom he will stand on Resurrection Day, an eternally lost soul.
Perhaps it is these musings that lead him to accept a writing project that Pinchas Obermann, an Israeli psychiatrist, suggests. Obermann treats many individuals suffering from what he calls the Jerusalem Syndrome. He has given this label to a condition of extreme religious or political beliefs that has brought many to Jerusalem. The city, he believes, has become a manic gateway to extreme behavior that holds the promise of either ineffable bliss or Armageddon. Obermann’s files, which Lucas uses in his research, become the means through which he meets the many complex characters of the novel. Their own communities would categorize each as normal, yet each has a fierce dedication to some religion, cause, or ideology; each, in a different way, is a majnoon.
Sonia Barnes is, without doubt, the most complex and fascinating of the novel’s characters. Her exoticism bewitches Lucas immediately, and Barnes works similar magic on readers of the novel. Her mother was an ardent Jewish American communist, her father an African American jazz musician. Barnes herself feels drawn to Islam, primarily because its discipline imposes structure on her life and has allowed her to throw off her enslavement to drugs. She has her father’s musical talent; she is a nightclub singer who performs a variety of songs. These range from a style of earthy reality that resembles that of Sarah Vaughan to the delicate lyricism of Spanish art songs that contemplate the light of heaven, eternal love, and escape from the tawdry world. Barnes dresses as a Muslim woman when she walks through Jerusalem’s Arab quarter, yet she can resemble the French chanteuse Edith Piaf when she sings her soulful saloon...
(The entire section is 2268 words.)