“I loved it! This is a great story with a wonderful concept and excellent background.” Readers’ Favorite
As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’
Well here I go again. Seven years after my first book was published and a full decade since I metamorphosed into a writer I am about to publish my first novel. The book springs from an idea I had many years ago while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had been inspired by one of the few low-key scenes from early on in the movie when Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody are in Jones’ home while he’s packing to go off on his adventure in search of the Ark. Brody asks Jones if he is fully prepared for the possible power and danger of the Ark, to which Jones dismissively retorts “I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance and you’re worrying about the bogey man…” or words to that effect. Of course his subsequent adventure ends up all about the “bogey man” and very little to do with the artefact itself.
I liked the movie of course, but I left the cinema wondering what would really happen if the real Ark turned up. Not a magical box of tricks, not a miraculous God box but the actual gilded, wooden box―undoubtedly the Ark of Moses, but merely the precious artefact it actually would have been in real historical ancient Israel, rather than the semi-mythological, miracle-frequented Israel of the Bible.
Over the years as my own life progressed, with its own adventures, set in numerous exotic locations with exotic histories and equally exotic present-days I began to formulate a context about which I knew much, and against which I could set the discovery of the Ark.
It must be the oldest cliché in the book (no pun intended) but “they” always say, especially when writing one’s first novel, to “stick to things you know about”. And, having always been nervous about whether or not I had the tools for being a novelist―even after writing and then getting King Saul published (to critical acclaim moreover) I decided from the outset to stick to this maxim like glue.
I know quite a bit about Spain: As a young adult, I observed closely and with fascination the transition of Spain from dictatorship to democracy. From the death of Franco until the failed coup of 1982 I was a keen Spain watcher. My love affair with southern Spain began when I was eleven years of age. My uncle was a top London fashion photographer (hence my familiarity with that world) and in 1971 he took me down to Marbella for a major shoot. We had a vast luxury villa next to the Los Monteros Hotel. Apart from the thrill (even as a mere eleven-year-old boy) of being in such close proximity with gorgeous models, we had the virtual run of the hotel’s fabulous beach complex. It was on this trip that I discovered the hitherto forbidden delights of fried bacon, shellfish and cocktails by the swimming pool. About fifteen years later I had a romance with a beautiful law student from Seville. My one-week stay at her family apartment (across the road from the legendary El Cordobes before he moved into seclusion in his eponymous city) in downtown Seville was a sensory barrage. Nightly tapas crawls with her and her equally beautiful friends in autumnal fragrant Seville, with lashings of ice cold fino, followed by late night visits to real spit-and -sawdust flamenco bars (with yet more fino), culminating in the early hours spent lounging on ornate chaise-longue, set in patios under cool arches, sipping cava, sent me back to London lusting for more of the same. Since 1993 my wife (then of three years) and I have had a Finca (a small-holding) in the Axarquia mountains above the coastal market town of Velez Malaga. We purchased it as a ruin and with the help of an architect friend from Seattle, restored the original building and enlarged it into a large comfortable home. (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) Our attempt at living full time in Andalucía failed, but since 1995 we have found a way to spend enough time there each year to manage our little farm. Our main crop are grapes; traditional Moscatel and less traditional (for our region) Cencibel (Tempranillo) from which we make an excellent Malaga Montes wine (for two years we bottled and shipped the wine professionally to the UK, but lost too much money in the process to make a business of it). We also farm almonds and citrus. We have helped our neighbours’ slaughter their pigs and chased wild boar away from our grapes. I know how the Spanish talk to each other and their casual and frequent use of profanities. I even open the book with the most commonly used profanity of all (referring to the female sex organ)―not for effect, but because it is exactly what would have been said by any Spanish man―from the king himself to the most lowly farmer, in those circumstances. In other words, I know Spain more than well enough―its good and its bad points― to relay an authentic and richly textured context for my Ark discovery narrative.
I know modern Israel even better. I have lived there twice; briefly when I was a child and recently for two years while my wife was working at Tel Aviv University. My first visit was as a seven-year-old boy, just days after The Six Day War. My memories of entering the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time were overshadowed by the stench from the open sewers―ditto, my first impression of Gaza City. Whatever one’s views of the Israeli conquest it can’t be denied that they gave the Palestinian Arabs vastly better municipal sanitation than they had enjoyed under their previous Jordanian and Egyptian masters. My ambivalence for modern Israel is even greater than it is for Spain. Because I care so intensely, the things I dislike about Israel I dislike intensely, and by the same token, the things I admire, I absolutely revere. And because I know Israel so well; its history, its politics, its demography, its culture, its achievements and its failures I also understand what is its most serious national problem. I know that the greatest single threat to the long-term survival and the ethical integrity of the modern State of Israel is not the Arabs, but the threat lurking and growing exponentially from within like a cancer―the rapidly growing “Haredi” (ultra-orthodox) population. To the outside world it’s a mysterious and little-understood situation confused further by seasoned western journalists often lumping the many religious groupings together into one right-wing bloc. This mischievous and simplistic depiction unfortunately disseminates a highly misleading picture. Nevertheless, the appearance of the Ark in Israel today (or back in the early 1990s) would pose exactly the kind of insane conundrums I describe at the climax of the book.
For a bloke, I have an unusual empathy with and understanding of women. I have spent my entire life in the company of women with great intellects and powerful personalities. My late mother and my wife Dido were / are my closest friends. I tried to reflect this admiration for them through the characters of Loli and Elena especially. Loli is the closest my story has to a real hero (although it could be argued that both Omri and Ron have heroic qualities); a quality reflected by the way she decides to end her own life. My portrayal of Loli was partly an act of catharsis for losing my mother in similar circumstances (though for very different reasons) a few months before I began the novel. I think this makes her a particularly powerful character. Rita is based loosely on an ex-girlfriend while Navah and Jenny are both composites of two separate pairs of women I knew in my youth, though none romantically.
I know myself best of all, so I put bits of me into two of the five main male characters. Alex, my main protagonist, is closest to me. I even made him look a little like me. I found this helped me help him to think, react and act in ways similar to myself in any given situation. Like me, he has a fairly strong sense of right and wrong and while a basically decent all round guy is definitely no hero. Like me, he prefers the company of women and his marriage is as much a friendship as a love affair. Like me, the “other love” in his life is his football (soccer) team, and like me he is doomed to support a team eternally overshadowed by its closest and most loathed rival. Like me, life tends to happen to Alex, rather than the other way around. I also used Alex to express my own atheism and my own ambivalence towards Spain; and both these qualities were essential in determining his rational and pragmatic actions regarding the Ark throughout the story. Unlike me though, Alex is an only child who knew his father. Unlike me, he is a respected academic with a great career and a good income and unlike me he is a fine linguist and he can drive a car. I put two major elements of myself into Carlos Garcia. Like me, he is an Ark geek, and like me (and most men reading this no doubt) he suffered from an unrequited love / lust for an unobtainable woman, with all the obsessive qualities that go with that condition. Malcolm and Omri on the other hand represent two characters I have fantasised about being but with whom the real me has little in common. Malcolm is the suave, debonair, totally cool product of the British establishment which so many secular Anglicised Jewish men aspire to be but rarely approach. The fact that just beneath the surface lurks a cold, emotionally repressed casual racist is neither here nor there. Omri is everything else that I am not and would also have liked to be. Firstly, he’s a kibbutz-raised native Israeli. He’s a war hero-archaeologist and he’s dynamically attractive. The fact that his personal life is dysfunctional and that he is an emotionally stunted, chain-smoking sex-addict is likewise, of no matter. Ron has nothing of me in him, either the real me or the fantasy version. Perhaps this is what makes him the most plausible of my main male characters. He is in fact another composite. His physical features are a blend of two of my old North American friends. His personality is also based on one of them and also that of a famous American archaeologist (for whom my creation of Ron is something of an homage). He is a highly principled person whose uncompromising stand against the anti-Jewish/Israeli agenda of his revisionist colleagues verges on the heroic.
All the secondary and minor characters are also based on real people and / or composites of real people I have known. Miguel has something of my maternal grandfather in his principled and brave dealings with adversity. But perhaps the most graphic example is the “supine” minister Hidalgo who is a virtual recreation of a dreadful Malaga bureaucrat we encountered soon after we moved to Spain. Hidalgo is my revenge on that equally rude and supine individual.
Sadly, like many Jews, I know anti-Semitism only too well. I have encountered both the Spanish and the British varieties―casual and vicious, and observe with increasing horror its current seemingly-unchecked resurgence―much of it hiding disingenuously behind the thin “respectable” veneer of anti-Israel-ism. To write any story based primarily in Spain and Israel without confronting this issue would be remiss; to write a story about the discovery of the “Jewish Ark” within the heart of fascist Catholic Judenrein Spain would be a form of denial.
Fortunately, as things turned out, much of what I knew academically was especially useful for formulating a novel about the Ark of the Covenant:
Firstly, I know about the Ark in all its incarnations. I’ve been an Ark geek since I was old enough to read my grandfather’s Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and have digested practically every detail written about it since, from II Maccabees until Graham Hancock and beyond.
I am a Levite. And so I have made it my business to learn all there is to know about the history, mythology and traditions of my tribe and especially the Levite relationship with the Ark of the Covenant…
I know a great deal more than most “non-academics” about the context and the world in which a historical Ark might have been constructed. I know more than the average Joe about the Egypt of the late 18th and early 19th Dynasties and why this was the most likely era from which the Ark story would emanate.
I also have sufficient knowledge of Kings Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon and Josiah of Judah and the circumstances of their reigns to enable me to paint a highly believable―not to say provocative―narrative for both the role of the Ark within the Kingdom Of Israel and later Judah, and for the history of its Levite guardians and their possible fate.
Ever since I first learnt of the “Jewish” temple to Yahweh on the Island of Elephantine in Upper Egypt I have made it my business to learn everything I could about its history and that of the “Jewish garrison” and community which used it. I am not the first person to suggest a linkage between that temple and the Ark, but my explanations for its removals and the timings of its removals firstly from Jerusalem, and then to and from Elephantine are―so far as I can tell―completely original.
I know more than enough about the Ethiopic Ark tradition to offer both convincing new ideas on the whys and wherefores of the Ark’s sojourn in that country and to suggest an intriguing possibility for its possible removal to Europe by Templar knights.
And as for what I didn’t know sufficiently at the outset of the project; for example, the Templars, Sephardic Spain, Franco and the Valley of the Fallen Monument I studied and researched like crazy.
To sum up then, I obeyed the maxim, and wrote about that which I knew.
As for the business of actually writing the novel I was advantaged in my enterprise by two further pieces of advice. The first was from a journalist and editor friend, who gave me the idea of imagining each episode of my story as a scene from a movie. She said that this would help me retain the structure and the integrity of the narrative and ensure that my book is especially visual―and she was right. It also means that if I’m ever so fortunate that ARK comes to the attention of a movie maker it would easily translate into a screenplay. The second piece of advice was from an English neighbour in Spain, who in a previous life had in fact been a screenwriter. Her advice―actually more encouragement than advice, was that I shouldn’t fear writing dialogue. Up until my conversation with her, I had failed to get past the act of outlining my story. Until that chat, each time I sat down to begin writing the novel I balked because I thought I couldn’t handle dialogue. All she did was point out how much I liked talking (far too much on most occasions) and that all I needed to do was to put my talk into the mouths of my characters and the rest would take care of itself―and she was right too.
ARK does not easily fit into a particular genre.
Unfortunately though, the literary world is obsessed with genre so all I can do here is describe it thus: Imagine a book with the mystery and intrigue of (Umberto Eco’s) Foucault’s Pendulum―only far more accessible―against the historical sweep of The Source (by James Michener)―only far more interesting. This begins to give you the flavour, range and weight of the book. ARK is not a thriller but it is genuinely thrilling, stimulating and provocative. It’s an engaging and enjoyable read. What more can I say.
The novel is available now on Kindle and paperback at Amazon: