De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig

July 5th, 2006

Excerpt

Irmin, who the fateful news had at least reached, looked at towering figure in that low-roofed room, throwing a doubled shadow on the floor and walls. His eyes rested for a long while on the dead man. “I should like to have a model taken of that face,” he said huskily; ‘in plaster or something of the kind.”

Gluskinos shook his round head. “Impossible, quite forbidden by Jewish custom.”

Confound your customs, thought Irmin angrily. What appeared in that face ought to be preserved. What was it?–just the face of a man gone home. He looked like one redeemed, like the prodigal son, to whom all things were forgiven–his wanderings, his defiance, his humiliation, and companionship with swine. What exaltation in those closed eyes and on those cheekbones, what peace in those lightly parted lips. It was Dr. de Vriendt’s real face. Irmin breathed quite calmly as he held the dead man’s head in his–this cold hand of a corpse, already stiff. A tune was hammering in his head, to the rhythm of his breathing, as always happened when he was deeply stirred, this time the cavalry signal “Stand to!” though its forceful clarity seemed hardly suited to this moment. His was a quite unsentimental mood, grave and stern. A man lived, and then he lived no longer; too much was made of the change. It was far easier to understand the indifference of the Orient at the contemplation of the teeming life upon the earth, than the attitude of the West. Irmin had been too deeply stamped with the lofty indifference of Jerusalem to birth, sickness, disaster, and death, for the shock, received through the little polished telephone, to have lasted very long. This face must not be allowed to perish. Next day he would come and photograph the dead man. For the rest, the only task that now awaited him was the obvious one of catching the murderer and hanging him.

Three shots, sideways from behind, and from very close at hand; quite a modern weapon, of small calibre. At the post-mortem next morning two of the bullets would be discovered in the body, so the doctor predicted. It was a pity, it was a damned pity that another of the most amusing people in the city had been taken.


Comments

The story in De Vriendt Goes Home is quite striking for a forgotten novel from the early 1930s. The title character is a Dutch-Jewish intellectual who has emigrated to British-administered Palestine. In private a poet with a strong sensual style, in public he is a law professor and a somewhat controversial figure in Jewish politics for his accomodating stance toward the Arabs.

Near the middle of his forties, he finds himself falling in love with Saud, a young Arab boy he tutors as a volunteer. He hides the situation from all his acquaintances in recognition of its double risk of rejection: by prevailing morality as a homosexual, and by Zionists for taking his friendly attitude toward the Arabs to a personal level. But he throws his emotions fully into the infatuation, somewhat amazed to find such passion in what has to now been largely a life of the mind.

Before the situation has a chance to develop, however, De Vriendt is murdered as he walks through Jerusalem. The murder sets off divides throughout the complex mix of cultures and politics in Palestine. Most Jews assume the killer is an Arab–but many are quietly pleased to see this difficult man taken off the scene. Some Arabs suspect others on their side; some see it as a Jewish conspiracy to incite animosity towards them. The British administration simply finds the situation tedious, as it interferes with their work and results in additional unplanned expenses at a time when the Foreign Office would rather see Palestine fade away as an issue.

As usual with Zweig, a simple story provides the basis for excursions into every corner of a society–or, in this case, three societies: Jew, Arab, and British. Irmin, an officer in the British security service who investigates the murder, does eventually track down the killer–a hot-headed Jew just off the boat from eastern Europe. But he finds that, like Palestine itself, the whole matter has become too complicated to subject to a simple judgment and execution, and decides to allow fate to pass judgment. By this point, the reader, too, has long stopped being concerned about the outcome of Irmin’s pursuit. Instead, like Irmin, he comes to appreciate the difficult of passing moral judgments against any party in a situation where each believes so fervently in its own case.

Zweig based the story on the life and murder of Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch Jew murdered by the Haganah in 1924. Like De Vriendt, de Haan was a moderate Zionist, in favor of negotiation over conflict, as well as a homosexual whose liaisons with young Arabs was the subject of his own poetry and the gossip of others. In de Haan’s case, as has been demonstrated by Schlomo Nakdimon and Mayzlish Shaul in their 1985 book (in Hebrew only), De Haan: The first political assassination in Palestine, the murder was organised and political. However, as with De Vriendt, the initial speculations about motive were fed by suspicions about sexuality and racism as well as politics.

Although shorter than most of Zweig’s novels, De Vriendt shares their common features of a kaleidoscopic tour through the personalities and forces at play in a situation. Zweig shows us the world through dozens of perspectives in the course of a little over 300 pages. In some ways, the shorter length forces him to distill his themes, thereby increasing their strength. I found it a remarkable book that definitely deserves to be rediscovered as a insightful yet entertaining story, one not without relevance for the current states of Israel and Palestine.


Reviews

Though Author Arnold Zweig is writing a tetralogy of War and Peace (already published: The Case of Sergeant Grischa, Young Woman of 1914), De Vriendt Goes Home is not a part of it. Based on the Palestine disturbance of 1929, this book is no brief for or against Zionism, the Arabs or the British mandate. Author Zweig, a Jew, writes not as a Zionist or an Agudist. His chief characters are of different races, different creeds. A good novelist, he never takes sides, and there is no villain in the book. Scene of De Vriendt Goes Home is narrower than The Case of Sergeant Grischa’s, but its theme is as wide: tolerance.

Dr. De Vriendt, able Dutch Jew, settled in Jerusalem, was a tower of strength to the Agudist party–orthodox, devout, antipolitical Jews, friendlier then to the devout Arabs than to the freethinking, politically-minded Zionists. But De Vriendt had two secret weaknesses: one was writing agnostic verse, the other was an Arab boy. He thought no one knew about either, but when the boy’s family found out and his life was threatened, his friend Irmin of the British Secret Service discovered one of De-Vriendt’s frailties. Knowing the perilous political situation in Jerusalem and fearing the consequences of what would look like a political murder, Irmin tried to get De Vriendt to leave town. On the eve of his departure he was shot. Immediately riots popped. The Agudists made a martyr of him; the Zionists and the Arabs each accused the other of his murder. Irmin began a relentless search for the killer. Meanwhile De Vriendt’s followers had learned the shocking truth about him. Soon he was deliberately forgotten by nearly everybody. But Irmin remembered him so well that when he finally ran down De Vriendt’s murderer he let him go.

Time, December 4, 1933

Enthusiasts of all parties will not like the novel, neither English nor Arab, nor those among the hosts of Zion. It will be attacked in Israel. But it will be read. … To the observer bemused by conflicting propaganda about a bitter struggle which is still waging, the book is a great document. But primarily it remains a strong and distinguished novel relating the immediate to the universal. That is the meaning of literature.

F.T. Marsh, Books, 10 December 1933

Locate a copy

De Vriendt Goes Home, by Arnold Zweig
New York: The Viking Press, 1933

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