Was Christopher Columbus Jewish? And did he bury a treasure that, if discovered, would shake the political and cultural landscape of the Jewish state? This is the intriguing premise of the suspenseful and extensively researched novel, “The Columbus Affair” (Ballantine Books: $27), by New York Times best-selling author Steve Berry.
The many readers who eagerly followed the adventures of Cotton Malone, Berry’s beloved action hero, are in for a treat. “The Columbus Affair,” Berry’s first stand-alone thriller since 2005, is an arresting tour de force.
Thomas Sagan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is about to commit suicide. He has lost his wife, his daughter and his reputation as a respected journalist. He “tightens his finger on the trigger, imagining how his obituary would start. Tuesday, March 5, former investigative journalist Tom Sagan took his own life at his parents’ home in Mount Dora, Florida.” A rap on his window. A man outside presses a photograph to the glass. Tom recognizes his 25-year-old estranged daughter, Alle, in the photo. The man holding up the photograph, Zachariah Simon, a Jewish zealot, warns Tom that Alle is at his mercy, her life in danger. Unless Tom allows the exhumation of his father’s body. Zachariah wants to get his hands on a secret buried with Tom’s father, Abiram, a secret that will presumably lead to the lost treasures of the Second Temple.
What Tom discovers in a sealed packet buried with his father sets into motion a series of adventures that far surpass the dramatic, heart-stopping turns and twists of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”
Zachariah is intent on finding these “most sacred objects in Judaism” and restoring them to the State of Israel in the hope of building the Third Temple. The problem is that he is not the only one seeking the treasure. A cast of colorful characters set out on the same journey around the globe in search of the holy treasure. Is it Columbus’ lost mine or “the Jews’ supposed hidden wealth”? As is Berry’s way, there is even more at stake here than finding a lost mine. Tom, who converted to Christianity to please his wife, learns that his father was a Levite. “Not of the house of Levi, but chosen for duty and called a Levite. One of only a few men since the time of Columbus who knew the truth. … What has lain hidden for nearly two thousand years will once again see the light of day.” And now, the reluctant son has inherited the Levite mantle from his father.
Convoluted paths intersect and a network of traps pop up as different groups scheme their way from Florida to Britain, Cuba, Jamaica, Prague and other meticulously detailed locales. In the process, a rich historical tapestry of exotic worlds and cultures unfolds that spans centuries — all the way back to the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the plight of Jews under Roman rule, and the journey of the enigmatic Christopher Columbus and his Hebrew interpreter, Yosef Ben Ha Levy Haivri. Were the first words spoken in the New World Hebrew?
The profound sadness I felt when I visited Prague a couple of years ago was renewed by the vivid descriptions and the history of the Jewish community in Prague. Only 1,500 practicing Jews are left in Prague, once the “epicenter for European Jewry.” The Jewish Quarter in Prague is now home to high-end designer boutiques. The Old-New Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery are heart-wrenching sights. More than 100,000 bodies are buried 12 layers deep in a space no larger than 11,000 square meters. Tombstones are “set at odd angles as if from some earthquake.”
Tom pays a visit to Rabbi Berlinger of Prague, who helps him solve a piece of the puzzle. To the end, Tom is surrounded by dangerous, back-stabbing characters, but none more dangerous than Tom himself, a father with no fear for his own life yet intent on saving his daughter. The strained relationship between father and daughter adds a powerful poignancy to the story. The naive Alle is in the clutches of the ruthless Zachariah. “What did you find in grandfather’s grave?” she asks her father. Is she spying for Zachariah, Tom’s arch-enemy? But Tom, a seasoned reporter and the only Levite who “can complete this journey,” will not easily reveal the Levite’s secret.
The reader is held spellbound as a series of cinematic episodes of heroism, intrigue and betrayal lead to one surprise after another until the ultimate scene of … Well! It would be unfair to rob the reader of the pleasure of discovering the remarkable ending.
Dora Levy Mossanen, author of “The Last Romanov” and other historical novels, is a contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.