A book titled Jerusalem Ablaze, and written by someone ‘..of Judeo-Spanish descent..’, pretty much sets one up on collision-course with one of the oldest fault lines on this miserable planet. I must confess to going straight to the short story that gives its name to the collection – reason: if I’m to crash, let’s just get it over with – but instead I found a delicious and delicately handled tale about a young priest and a prostitute. As I read, I could see, hear and smell Jerusalem – and there was indeed the most oblique touch of politics – but first and foremost, this was a story that worked; that spoke; that came to life.
From there I hopped to another couple of pieces – An Israel State of Mind (parts 1 and 2). Here are stories about the modern-day Jewish diaspora: about being young, being sexually confused, and of unabashed pride in one’s heritage – of one’s connection to Israel. There’s real tub-thumping but it doesn’t matter because again the stories work – they are clever, well written and with characters that genuinely engage. Indeed, this is the very essence of ‘diverse fiction’ – inviting readers to step out of their silos and experience other lives and different worlds.
Judaism decorates several of these stories but they are less about religion than the ghost of religion, haunting the grown man. Still, whilst Orlando Ortega-Medina betrays nothing of the burden of representation, (one gets the feeling that many of these stories are personal), his freest hand – his best writing – lies outside the gay/Jewish space. Here’s an elderly Japanese, a filthy-rich tycoon and sadist, explaining love & hate to a young wayfarer:
“Listen, my young man, it’s good to love,” he said. “But it’s also good to hate.” He lingered on the word. “If you don’t know how to hate, then you are only half a person. Do you know how to hate, young man?”
I could feel him breathing harder.
“I think so,” I said.
“No, I don’t believe you do. You would know with more certainty if you did,” he said. “Pay close attention to what I’m about to say to you. Love is pleasant enough, but it’s just a sedative. Hate, on the other hand, is invigorating. It’s good to plunge into the iciness of hate after languishing in the drowsy heat of love.”
In quality fiction, what the reader takes away is often not explicitly surfaced. And many of the stories in Jerusalem Ablaze bear this hallmark. Sex, love, lust and religion will always make a heady cocktail, but Ortega-Medina mixes his ingredients with expert precision.
Any Cop?: Jerusalem Ablaze is a rich, varied, thought-provoking and eye-opening collection. All what the best fiction should be.