City of the Sun, by Juliana Maio. Greenleaf Book Group Press. 380 pages. Hardcover $24.95, trade paperback $15.95.
When Mickey Connolly, a young American journalist comes to the Middle East to report on the desert war, he is astonished to discover Libyans praising Hitler’s Third Reich and seeing their future as Nazi Germany’s allies. In Cairo, his “home” base, he encounters much of the same attitude, though it’s essentially more anti-English than pro-German. Egyptians had lived under British martial law since 1939, compromising the independence gained in 1936. With Rommel furiously approaching the Egyptian border, Connolly wants to wake up American readers to the facts and significance of this desert war theater. For much of the 1941-2 the time of the novel, the Germans seem unstoppable.
So why are Jewish refugees from Germany and elsewhere coming to Egypt in their flight from persecution? There is a sizeable, well-established Jewish community there with mature institutions. There are Jewish individuals in positions of influence and power. However, the stability of Jewish life in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is threatened by the dramatic rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its growing partnership with Nazi Germany.
Meet Heinrich Kesner. He works for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence operation reporting on doings in Cairo, allied military strength, and whatever will prepare for Rommel’s victory in Egypt. He has cultivated a wide range of informants and is now being noticed by the SS as a useful functionary.
He has the particular assignment of tracking a Jewish refugee who is has arrived via Istanbul. That refugee is Erik Blumenthal, who with his father Viktor and his sister Maya is stay with the Levin family, cousins who will shelter them until their final papers allow for transit to Palestine. They have just barely escaped from Germany.
The host family is headed by Joe and Allegra. Their oldest child, Lili, who is in her late teens, befriends Maya, who is somewhat older, and after a while the two are sister-like confidants. Both young women are knockouts. We find out later that Allegra’s brother is a prominent lawyer who is assisting Zionist efforts.
Mickey Connolly has been gaining access to personnel at the British and U. S. embassies, visiting Jewish leaders and institutions, and reshaping his reportorial focus, narrowing it down to the situation of the Jewish community in Egypt and the Arab Middle East. Mickey proves a good sleuth, and he is recruited by the U. S. embassy to secretly hunt down the very same Erik Blumenthal who is Kesner’s target.
Erik is important because of his stature as a young nuclear scientist who has the kind of expertise that can benefit either the Allied or Axis powers.
When Mickey encounters and falls for the reserved, intelligent, and extremely attractive Maya, he has no idea that she is the sister of the man he seeks. Maya – properly fearful, guarded, and yet enchanted to be in “Paris on the Nile” – hides her true identity and whereabouts. Intermediaries help them communicate, and soon enough their torrid love affair begins to overwhelm the political thriller plot, though the two stories are of course interwoven. Each lover has secrets, creating a clash between trust and passion.
Juliana Maio winds her story-telling through alternating points of view, weaving a pattern in which readers stand behind Connolly, Kesner, Maya, and others. The device of Interrupting one character’s thread with another leaves readers hanging, especially as events draw the characters closer and closer together. A sizeable cast of well-etched minor characters populates a fascinating landscape at a fascinating time in history.
Egyptian born Maio’s lavishly painted setting is one of her novel’s many charms. She takes us to a Cairo still intoxicated by the long cultural aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest and occupation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pockets of Cairo, including the suburb of Heliopolis (City of the Sun), became effectively Europeanized, and French language, arts, and manners became part of the city’s look and social tone up to and well beyond the onset of World War II.
Knowing that the Nazis did not conquer Egypt, we are left to anticipate the fates of Erik, Mickey, and Maya. My lips are sealed.
This review appears in the April 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).