Born to an Anglican mother and a Jewish father, the acclaimed British novelist Muriel Spark converted to Catholicism at the age of thirty-six. Seven years later, in 1961, Spark found herself in Jerusalem covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann for the London Observer. That experience would in turn become the basis for her novel The Mandelbaum Gate, which has as its protagonist a Catholic Briton of mixed Jewish and Christian ancestry, named Barbara, visiting the capital of the Jewish state. Calling the book both Spark’s “most ambitious” and her “most disappointing,” Christopher Scalia nonetheless finds in it moments of profundity:
Some of the novel’s most compelling passages occur when Barbara, reflects on, or is challenged to reconcile, her disparate ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Although Spark devotes only a few pages of this long novel to it, the [Eichmann trial] has a profound effect on Barbara’s journey. She is struck by the language and imagery of Eichmann’s testimony, finding them consistently inappropriate and ill-suited for their subject. On some occasions, his empty mechanical language belies the horror of the Holocaust: “Minute by minute throughout the hours the prisoner discoursed on the massacre without mentioning the word, covering all aspects of every question addressed to him with the meticulous undiscriminating reflex of a computing machine.” This “dead mechanical tick” is poorly suited for the massacre it described.
Later, Barbara contracts scarlet fever and spends a stretch of time confined to a house with several other people:
During her quarantine . . . Barbara becomes fed up with another character’s anti-Semitic commentary—“Really, let’s face it, Hitler had the right idea. . . . It’s a network on a world scale. The Jews. They’ve got us in a net.”—and attacks her. The overt anti-Semitism and Barbara’s visceral, direct reaction to it create a sharp contrast to the oblique and suppressed nature of the Eichmann trial, and the scene permits Barbara to demonstrate her attachment to her Jewish identity.