A review of The Ambassadors by George Lerner, Pegasus Books. NY, 2014
No this is not The Ambassadors by Henry James, although it has the same title. The origin of Lerner’s title is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein also entitled The Ambassadors. That painting portrays two distinguished gentlemen gathered round a panoply of objects including a globe and a skull, which indicates their worldliness. Characters in the novel cite that painting and hark back to it on several occasions as the story unfolds. And a rather odd story it is:
The novel revolves around Jacob, now an elderly Jew, who found his life’s purpose at the end of the Second World War in saving post holocaust Jews from new horrors and helping them escape to Israel. Subsequently Jacob remained involved in such efforts, including the evacuation of the Falasha from Ethiopia, wherever Jews were persecuted. Whenever called to duty Jacob abandoned his family in New York and went to serve.
When the novel opens Jacob has been called again, but this time to aid the Tutsi people, victims of genocide in Rwanda. Although not Jewish, Jacob’s preservation mandate has been extended to all those who suffer annihilation. Even though this plot line is essential to the novel, the thrust of the story is to unwind Jacob’s strained relationships with his wife and son. She is a respected anthropologist and the son a failure, at least in Jacob’s eyes. Jacob had more or less abandoned them during his zealous pursuit of justice for global victims. They, in turn, harbor resentments and antagonisms. However, in eastern Congo where the Hutu/Tutsi conflict has renewed, Jacob comes to realize that harsh boundaries of right and wrong are perhaps too strict to define humankind’s inhumanities and frailties. With that growing enlightenment, Jacob returns to New York to sort out his family.
I read the book because of the Africa connection. I found that, for the most part, the situation was accurately portrayed. Neither side comes across as sympathetic. The genocide is never explained, it is just a given. While some genocidaires are despicable hoodlums, the ruthlessness of revenge is forthrightly depicted. In sum, that’s the message - tooth for a tooth has limits - afterwards you just have to cope.