Israel’s intelligence spy agency, the Mossad, is as famous in popular lore as the CIA or James Bond and MI6. Highly reputed, highly feared, it has a renown for secret, clandestine operations that is undoubtedly based both on fact and on fiction.
Any number of operational measures might be attributed to it, even ones in which it played no role whatsoever. Of course, that is part of the organization’s effectiveness. Its reputation steers public belief.
Despite the entertaining espionage tales by writers such as Daniel Silva, whose runaway bestsellers about fictional Mossad legend Gabriel Alon have provided drama and flair to the speculation about the workings of the spy agency, we have very little detail about actual current operations of Mossad agents. Rightly so.
Into this mostly unlit chamber of conjecture about the Mossad, The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher-Atir casts a bit of light.
Reicher-Atir, the former head of the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) special ops directorate and a one-time commando who participated in the rescue of the hostages at Entebbe in 1976, retired from the IDF in 1995 with the rank of brigadier general. He knows of what he writes.
And what he has written in The English Teacher is a tension-filled spy novel that openly and courageously explores the emotional, physical and psychological human toll that a life embedded in enemy territory takes upon the undercover spy. This is the first of Reicher-Atir’s four novels to be translated into English. It was a bestseller in Israel.
Not surprisingly, the book’s myriad, true-to-life details and intentionally recreated realism meant that it had to be approved by the intelligence censors prior to publication. The author tells us in an introductory note that “this book spent many months with the Israeli civilian and military censorship committees; numerous changes and omissions were imposed, until the book was approved for publication.”
“This is a true story, of real-life operatives that are wholly made up, and actual missions that never happened,” Reicher-Atir tells us.
And it certainly has the feel of a true story, laden with insider insights. There are no sophisticated espionage gadgets, car chases, bare-knuckle brawls or shoot-outs in a roomful of bad guys and thugs. Instead we are immersed in the strict attentiveness by a newcomer to the land of the enemy to the innumerable details of ordinary, daily human existence that provide a mask for true identity. The newcomer is a young woman named Rachel, an Israeli spy working as an English teacher in the capital city of an enemy state.
The story opens after her operational service in the field has finished. She has gone to England to observe the shivah for her late father, where she finds a hidden cache of correspondence from her former Mossad handler, Ehud, to her late father. This discovery prompts Rachel to place a phone call to Ehud in Israel. She leaves him a cryptic message and then disappears.
Her disappearance sets off alarms at Mossad headquarters in Israel due to the secrets that Rachel knows. She must be found.
Ehud, the man who knew her best during her years as an undercover spy, is recruited to lead the investigation. A former Mossad commander, Joe, is summoned to work with Ehud in the search for Rachel. And thus the story unfolds.
Ehud recounts to Joe all the details he can remember, or wishes to remember, about Rachel’s work under his command. Through their conversations, the two men hunt for clues that might lead them to Rachel, before it is too late.
In effect Reicher-Atir has constructed a narrative geometry of three temporal dimensions that overlay one upon the other.
The first dimension is the present tense conversations between the two men. Ehud exhaustively recounts the third-person record of Rachel’s achievements and service in the field.
The second is a throwback in time to the second-person dialogue between Ehud and Rachel while she was actually in the field. During her undercover work, they would meet to review operational details.
The third dimension is that of Rachel’s first-person experiences with friends and colleagues while she lived secretively, but openly, undercover, risking her life every day.
The reader cannot know the full, multi-textured, multi-coloured picture until all the details mesh together through these three layers. Throughout the novel, Reicher-Atir leaves tantalizing clues about the next key development leading inexorably to the story’s final resolution.
The English Teacher is tightly written, compact and restrained of language. Reicher-Atir succeeds in creating an atmosphere of constant worry and concern. The reader feels an ever-present knot of tension. What will happen to Rachel? Will Ehud find her alive? Will he find her at all?
But the search for clues about Rachel’s whereabouts is, in truth, a meditation by the author about the loneliness and isolation of the double-life lived without relent, surrounded by imminent danger everywhere and at all times.
“Think of her loneliness, loneliness in the middle of a crowd,” Ehud pleads. “The loneliness of someone leading a double life, hiding her objectives and her motives and the things most important to her. Think of the longing for warmth, love, someone to listen to you, to want you.”
It was Ehud’s responsibility to keep Rachel safe, to protect her, to provide her with the unshakable knowledge that he was her constant backup, even though he was far away in another country. But he also knew that, even with the inescapability of his responsibility for her, “the operation was more important than Rachel.”
And Rachel, like all secret operatives far away from home in enemy territory, knew this too. “When she was out there, Ehud was in the distance. Reporting from the field was hazardous and she needed to be brief and precise, and she knew Ehud wasn’t the only one reading her cables.”
“It takes a lot of character” to do what Rachel did, the fictional prime minister of Israel comments at one point in the story, after one of her daring successes. But even the strongest character can buckle, can fail in an instant, through weariness and ache.
The English Teacher deftly explores what can happen when that horrible weight can no longer be borne, when the pretense and deception become, simply, too much.