It is London, 1963. Today is Alexander Abramov's forty-first birthday. He is an Israeli secret agent. Abramov parks his rented car in a rain-drenched square and takes a bus into town. He is a strange and mysterious man, quite withdrawn. Most important, Alexander has never loved anyone, although he has a wife and children back in Israel, and his parents were kind and caring people.
Two young women board the bus. They sit in front of him and he notices that the girl seated on the left is lovely, with her sleek copper-colored hair, "gathered at the nape of her neck with a black velvet ribbon, tied in a cross-shaped bow." Her eyes are deep brown and her coloring and complexion remind him of his mother's - fair with a pink bloom. As a Mossad agent, Alexander knows how to find the details of her life...and he does so. Her name is Thea and she is seventeen, twenty-four years younger than he. Alexander has devoted his entire life to "tough, disagreeable work, because he needed to love." His work, which is a "series of surmises, assumptions and risks," provides him with the means to distract himself from the emptiness he feels - the sense of otherness he finds within. Perhaps he is the Minotaur within the maze of his long repressed emotions. (Too symbolic for me!). Now he knows, he loves Thea. For the first time in forty-one years, he feels love and need.
Abramov writes to Thea from his hotel room. He tells her that he loves her...that he has loved her all of his life. She doesn't know him but she "will always belong to him." He writes that he has acted as he has throughout his life because he was unaware he had choices. He didn't know he would ever meet her. And now that he has seen her, it is too late. His path is chosen and he cannot deviate from it. "There has been an accident, some sort of discrepancy in birth dates," he sadly explains. Along with his letter, he sends Thea a parcel containing a record, music he knows she likes, and asks her to play it the following Sunday at precisely 1700 hours. He will do the same in his hotel room. The two will be listening to the same music at the same time and this will be their first meeting. He cannot reveal his identity to her, else he blow his cover.
Initially, Alexander does not give Thea an opportunity to write back, nor does he know if she would even consider doing so. But eventually, he gives her a "drop off" place where she can leave her letters should she choose to respond. She does. And oddly, she complies with all Alexander's convoluted instructions without question. Thus begins a correspondence which will last for decades. Thousands of letters are accumulated. Their romance becomes stronger and more obsessive than any real flesh and blood relationship.
The narrative is related from the points of view of three different men, all connected by their love for Thea, who also narrates part of the storyline. Abramov, the spy, plays a central role, with his clandestine relationship with her. His love of music and the Mediterranean culture, flesh out his character. The book's final segment is an account of Abramov's childhood in Palestine - his life in a pre-WWII Jewish settlement.
I was somewhat disappointed by "The Minotaur." The novel does not remind me at all of Graham Greene's or Lawrence Durrell's brilliant writing, as some English critics have suggested. Perhaps it is the translation which makes the prose awkward at times. I also found the initial chapters to be slow, and fairly ridiculous...overly sentimental. I have a good imagination and enjoy fantasy, but just cannot conceive of a girl or woman who would respond with so much enthusiasm to an obvious stalker, and feel no fear or menace. I would be at the police station within minutes of receiving the first letter.
The two other men who become involved with Thea over the years are somewhat interesting, but their characters are not strong enough to sustain the narrative. I wouldn't classify "The Minotaur" as a spy novel. It is too quiet and contemplative. There are no twists and turns, no suspense, and frankly, there is little love in this supposed love story. It is more a novel about obsession. I give it a 3 Star rating because reading this book wasn't a total waste of time and I did enjoy parts of it. Honestly, however, I will not go out of my way to recommend it. There are just too many really good books out there to read....so why waste time on this one?
Author Benjamin Tammuz was born in Soviet Russia. When he was five years old, he immigrated with his parents to Israel, where he contributed to Israeli culture as a novelist, journalist, critic, painter, and sculptor. He was on the editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Five of his books have been translated into English, including this one.