“A Tale of Two Avrahams,” by Avraham Avi-hai, is the story (actually, stories) of two men running for their lives — 500 years apart.
And by accident of fate, one Avraham becomes the custodian of the other’s long-forgotten odyssey.
Masterfully written, Avi-hai displays a deep knowledge of the Greek island of Crete and Italy — the settings for both tales, interweaving the history and culture of the lands, their people and their conflicts, all making for a Jewish-flavored cloak and dagger yarn that spans the centuries.
The story opens with the modern day Israeli Avraham — Avraham ben Hayim — a Canadian-born journalist, scholar, spy, government official and true-blue Zionist who made aliyah when the state was young. He receives a mysterious visitor at his home deep in the night — a Chasidic rabbi who warns him that certain rabbis want him dead as payback for the corruption he’s uncovered about them. The rabbi urges ben Hayim to flee Israel at once.
He does, making his way to Crete where he constantly moves about, changing his identity, adopting a disguise and befriending a lovely Cretan woman, Ariadne, who helps him hide. Do they become romantically involved? There’s chemistry, but Avi-hai never completely answers that question.
But other questions arise while ben Hayim is on the run. Is the Mossad involved? Why? Can his new friend Ariadne be trusted?
All those questions fade once ben Hayim makes an amazing discovery. A clerk at a village hotel shares with him an old manuscript he’s come across, written in an Italian-style Hebrew script. Ben Hayim, who has a scholarly background and can read medieval Hebrew is intrigued. He pours over the manuscript.
That’s when his story is abruptly suspended and we meet the second Avraham — Avraham de Pomi, a respected rabbi and physician in 16th-century Mantua. De Pomi was forced to flee the Bishop of Mantua, who planned to arrest him for spreading anti-Christian sedition.
With the help of the Duke of Mantua, de Pomi flees, also to Crete where he is to manage the duke’s lands there. The only condition is, he must adopt a Christian identity. Like the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, de Pomi is to become a secret Jew.
A deeply religious scholar and physician, much like Maimonides, de Pomi finds living a dual existence hard enough, but soon this elderly man will find his life taking twists he never imagined when he boarded the ship for the Greek isles, the impact of which will be felt into the 21st century, where the climax of both tales will be revealed.
Not every novelist is skillful enough to write about an era faded into history. Indeed, Avi-hai made several trips to Greece and Italy to research his project. Much of what he learned is annotated in the book.
The result: a novel so consuming it’s quite hard for the reader to put it aside. The only real critique is the way Avi-hai presents de Pomi’s manuscript, setting it down as one block of copy instead to integrating it throughout the chapters. Doing it that way abruptly suspends the flow of Avi-hai’s story; one can’t help but wonder if having the modern day Avraham read the manuscript as he flees from town to town in Greece and Italy wouldn’t have improved the flow of the story and made for a more gripping, seamless conclusion.
But that’s armchair quarterbacking. “A Tale of Two Avrahams” is a solid, cerebral read regardless of its outcome. For readers of international intrigue, here’s a new taste for your pallet.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“A Tale of Two Avrahams,” by Avraham
Avi-hai, Appletree Publishing, 2013, 252 pages, $17.95.