Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Apr 2017

Vengeance by George Jonas

On the 5th September 1972 terrorists from the Palestinian Black September group murdered eleven Israeli athletes who were competing in the Munich Olympics. The Munich Massacre and its aftermath has an especially infamous place in history.

Vengeance is not the story of this terror attack. Rather it purports to be the true story of what Israel did after the attack – of the autonomous undercover team it assembled and sent to Europe to avenge the Israeli athletes and to cut off the serpent’s head of terror wherever it might find it.

Originally published in 1984 – only twelve years after the events it describes – Vengeance was reissued in the mid-2000s to coincide with the release of Steven Spielberg's film Munich, which covers the same ground and was based at least in part on Jonas’s book.

This might seem an odd book to be rereading – I’ve now read it three times – but I can explain why. It is completely gripping. That may seem a strange thing to say about a book detailing such a brutal terrorist attack – and in age when we are saturated in accounts of terror – but the fact remains. It really is exciting. And this is partly to do with the style of writing.

Perhaps needless to say, the degree to which the author was able to verify the story recounted by the agent named as “Avner” in the book was limited. It would not, Jonas acknowledges, be possible to meet the usual rigours of journalistic verification from multiple sources. For this reason, Jonas says, he chose a somewhat different approach, recounting the story as if “looking over Avner’s shoulder” – a sort of fly-on-the-wall recreation, if you will, oddly close to the methods of some of the New Journalism writers, in fact. One book it put me in mind of is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

But it is also very “thrillerish” and – possibly because of its setting in the Seventies – also reminded me strongly of some of the great thrillers of that period, such as Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, perhaps even le Carré. (Oddly enough I was also reminded of another writer whose work has become embroiled in controversy and who I need to reread: the Polish reporter, Ryszard Kapuściński, now widely thought to have falsified – or perhaps fabulated – much of his journalism and who himself often talked about “literary reportage”).

Anyway, the fact that Vengeance is a riveting “page-turner” is important, because over the years this has helped feed the controversy which has surrounded the book. It seems that before being picked up by its original American publisher, and prior to Jonas being commissioned, Avner’s story was turned down by at least one other publisher that felt it lacked credibility. Jonas himself was also attacked widely on the left for – amongst other things – hawkish, Reaganite views and Zionism, charges which he answers in an afterword with (I must say) great clarity, lucidity and dignity. Even if one may be left thinking, he doth protest too much…

In any case, most readers will I’m sure consider the political controversies which surrounded the book on its original publication to be ancient history and will be much more interested in whether the extraordinary story of Avner and his vengeance squad is true. Personally, after several readings, I think I am perhaps now more sceptical than I was originally. I think this may be an account as Avner wishes it had happened, rather strictly as it did happen.

But even so – and whether strictly true or not – the book explores some deeply thought-provoking ideas. (Rooted in fact, one feels they may be being elevated to the level of metaphor – they would not seem out of place in le Carré.) One of these is the dependence Avner’s group comes to have on a shadowy commercial operation called Le Group – essentially a sort of terrorist infrastructure support organisation, doing prep and intelligence and clean-up work for pretty well any and every terrorist group able to meet its prices. On the one hand, Le Group may be simply that – freelancers selling to the best payers; and yet on the other, there is something almost Conradian about the extent of their nihilism. One member of Le Group, for instance, rationalises what they do by explaining that the sooner terrorists have blown up as much as they can, the sooner it will be possible to begin building a new socially just world.

I feel sure that Vengeance has its faults. Its veracity or otherwise will be debated for as long as it remains in print. Some of its political analysis now seems not only crude but very much of its time. I would even agree that the events it depicts sometimes seem to be lent a reprehensible glamour-by-nostalgia (but I think the fault is ours rather than Jonas’s).  And I think it is a book of a very particular type – perhaps even a particularly male type: technical know-how, gritty action, the telling detail, what le Carré christened “tradecraft”. (Even Jonas says: “I believed [“Avner”] because he knew how the light switch worked in an obscure apartment building in Rome.”). 

There is some truth in all of these criticisms. And yet even on third reading it is utterly compelling.

Alun Severn

April 2017