Mischa Hiller’s 2010 novel Sabra Zoo ended with its protagonist Ivan morally disabused on an outward-bound flight from Beirut after he witnesses at firsthand the Sabra and Shatila massacres, the mass murder of Palestinian civilians by Israeli-sponsored neo-fascists in 1982. This still-little known atrocity casts a long shadow over his second novel, Shake Off (Telegram Books).
It is now 1989 and Michel Khoury, the sole-surviving member of a family killed at Sabra is a PLO secret agent living undercover in London bedsit-land. Trained by the Soviets in the arts of espionage and shuttling between West Berlin, Switzerland and Athens at the bidding of his mentor Abu Leila, Michel has a plethora of aliases, a deep-seated commitment to the cause and an addiction to Codeine that suggests a more profound identity crisis than mere exile. While Michel is supposed to be organizing a secret conference to discuss a radical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the surety of his clandestine life is unsettled by an affair with Helen, his sexy, directionless neighbour, herself trying to detach herself from her PhD supervisor, a sleazy Greek drunk Michel calls ‘Zorba’. When a mysterious package smuggled out of the West Bank comes into Michel’s hands, he begins to realize he’s being followed by ‘The Competition’: Mossad agents. After an assassination in Berlin, ‘The Competition’ work out where Michel lives, sending him and Helen on a cat-and-mouse trip across England and Scotland and towards a brilliantly delivered twist-ending and a return to the world of Lebanese refugee camps.
Shake Off is an expertly constructed, serpentine and suspenseful novel that alternates between driven hide-and-seek sequences and numb meditations. It’s beautifully atmospheric too, and a low-rent London of dank bedsits and grey institutional buildings becomes a palpable presence (the only false note of period detail being that the Waterstones in Gower Street where Michel buys a Primo Levi book was still a Dillons as late as 1995). Michel himself is the PLO equivalent to the existential misfit foot soldier found in Le Carre’s Smiley novels, Graham Greene’s The Human Factor or the Harry Palmer series, ‘part of a grander plan that [calls] for sacrifice and putting [his] own interests last’, an expendable pawn in a chess game that he begins to realize is no more than a too-frequently canted metaphor. The title comes from the literal Arabic for Intifada. There is much more here than the perceived Zionist oppressor for Michel to shake-off.
Shake Off is more emphatically a genre novel than Sabra Zoo but one that continues in the vein of that novel’s complexity, compassion and ability to disturb the recent past without resort to sentimentality or soapboxing.