The Spy Who Captivated Me: Israeli Espionage Novel Done Right

The tension and the reversals of fortune generated by agents of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and Hezbollah make ‘The IVF File’ a fine read.

Reuters

“Tik IVF” (The IVF File), by Hagai Tiomkin and Eldar Gal-Or, Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 502 pages, 72 shekels

I really hate spy novels. Actually, my problem is that I usually can’t follow the plot. By the time Spy No. 1 meets with the counterespionage forces, is taken by them to a secret location and starts to spy for both sides, and then begins to meet with Spy No. 2 and sometimes falls in love with her, at which juncture Spy No. 3 enters the picture – I am at a complete loss. I can never remember who’s on which side of the fence. And the Cold War, which is often the backdrop for the doings in many of these books, tends to be about as enthralling as a cold noodle.

It’s not just that I don’t remember the developments – they really don’t interest me. In any event, that was the way I felt until I began reading “The IVF File,” in which I became so enchanted that I can’t wait for the next book in the series.

The protagonist, Michael Marciano (who is making his third appearance in this book), recently completed his army service. He started off in the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, but after he and his fellow commandos carried out atrocities against the Palestinian civilian population he experienced a mental breakdown and was transferred to the defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv. There he was assigned to a group setting up a digital database to crosscheck information about people under surveillance by the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence-gathering Unit 8200. Wanting only to get away after completing his service, Marciano embarks on a global jaunt, in the course of which he arrives in London.

He rooms there with Yohanan, a nice gay fellow from Israel, though somewhat eccentric and decadent, who couldn’t care less about nation or homeland. All he wants is to meet hunks and sniff cocaine. To pay the rent, Marciano replies to an ad in a Jewish paper, placed by someone looking for people with a security background. He is interviewed by a group of people, one of whom is named George, and another of whom introduces himself as the economic attaché of the Israel Embassy. After a short talk, in which they test whether Marciano is familiar with a few hot names from the Middle East arena, they hire him.

At first he’s not given much to do, though the salary is generous. But, after Rachel, George’s secretary, lures him into her net, his new employers start to threaten that if he doesn’t cooperate by providing them with more material, they will inform the Mossad about what he’s already given them. Marciano thinks that there’s nothing special about the information he’s passed on, but strongly suspects he is serving the espionage services of Hezbollah.

He tells the Israeli embassy about what’s going on, and two officials of the Shin Bet security service take up his case: Yehoshua Ben Odis, the embassy’s fat, elderly security man, and Roni Lerner, a special assistant to the service’s director. Lerner, who is almost 50, is trying one last time to have a child with his wife, Vered, who is pushing 40; if they don’t succeed, they’ll have to resort to in vitro fertilization – whence the book’s title.

Lerner and Ben Odis are appalled when they hear what Marciano indeed did tell Hezbollah, but they immediately come to his aid. How will they be able to safeguard Marciano, extract from him information that will help foil future terrorist attacks, and also prevent Hezbollah from learning that Marciano is a double agent? To find out, you’ll have to read all 502 pages of the book, which despite its length, is riveting throughout.

In addition to being a well-crafted thriller, with a tightly woven plot and plenty of action, the book possesses other qualities as well. The characters, for example. I don’t know any Shin Bet or Mossad people, but the ones who appear here were convincing. The authors avoid stereotypes and retain the right dose of humor.

Ben Odis – beefy, ardent and good-hearted – together with Lerner, whose abandonment by his father may account for the paternal feelings he harbors toward Marciano, who was also forsaken by his father, both go to great lengths to protect Marciano. The latter is a captivating personality amid the discomfiture that envelops him: He truly loathes what Sayeret Matkal and what the Shin Bet are doing in the West Bank, believes the conflict with the Palestinians is resolvable, and thinks Israel is behaving like the last of the contemptible colonialist powers. He’s charmingly nave, and his courage also stems from his innocence, and from his propensity to divide the world that surrounds him into good and bad.

Aura of credibility

Beyond this, Tiomkin and Gal-Or give their plot an aura of credibility, even if most readers cannot have the slightest idea of how closely it reflects reality, if at all. The authors provide accurate descriptions, which the reader may not be familiar with from his personal experience but will know from the media.

A particularly convincing example is the character of the plump prime minister, who is clearly based on Ariel Sharon. (They didn’t want me as chief of staff, so they got me as prime minister, he says, quoting the famous remark by Sharon that was quoted by journalist Uri Dan.) In this way, credible details seep into the plot and garnish it with truth.

Al Hakavenet, a Hebrew-language blog about security and strategy, was also impressed by the book’s protagonists and the high quality of its writing. The world of the characters “is not divided into black and white, good and bad,” the blog observed.

“Throughout the book, the reader takes note that the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ use very similar methods. The book conveys to the reader the feelings of its protagonists, who live in a cold, alienated world and are called on to make difficult decisions in the name of ‘the general good’ and lofty moral values decisions that run contrary to those values.”

With a storyline like the one described, and a background studded with fascinating characters, we can forgive the book its faults. They include, to begin with, its length: Judicious editing would have shortened it and accelerated the handling of the events. For, though tension abounds, there’s sometimes a feeling of excess. A reader on a book-review site summed it up well. He stopped reading midway, he says, because the writing “is often tiresome and doesn’t flow.”

In addition, the women in the book are horrid. There’s Vered, Lerner’s wife, who wants only to become pregnant, and comports herself like an out-of-control hormone bomb; Leah, the manager of the Shin Bet director’s office, who’s a dry, pitiless bitch; and Rachel, the seductress of Hezbollah’s espionage ring, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, no more than a whore. In short, the female characters in the novel portray “traditional” roles: prostitutes, mothers, bitches. Definitely not to my liking.

But if we ignore these defects, it must be admitted that the book is simply marvelous. A writer on the women’s website Saloona (Hebrew), noted that the book “moves gently between substantive questions about modern life, the worship of money and the repulsion from all it stands for, while offering descriptions of the wild London nightlife.” The book, she adds, “embodies Israeli reality genuinely and without blurring the dark parts.”

It’s obvious why the book is a local best seller: It’s simply made from the right materials.