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Daniel Silva on the Arab Spring and His Latest Novel, Portrait Of A Spy

Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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HH: Morning Glory and Evening Grace America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. This is the hour that many of you have been waiting for on the day that many of you have been waiting for the publication day of the 11th Gabriel Allon novel this one Portrait of a Spy and I’m so pleased to welcome back the author of the series, Daniel Silva. Daniel, a great 2011 to you. Congratulations.

DS: Thank you so much. It’s so nice to hear your voice again.

HH: How is the launch of Portrait of a Spy going?

DS: It’s gong quite well. All the reviews have been great – getting ready to chamber the round as we say. Book launches are really more and more like movie launches these days and so those first couple days of a publication are really critical and really hectic.

HH: Well, I got Portrait of a Spy a month ago. I already wrote something of a review over at the Washington Examiner. It’s terrific. It’s wonderful. I want to start – the first question I get from everyone who is jealous because I get the pre-publication novels, which artists did Silva deal with so why don’t you tell them about Rothko and Titian.

DS: It is the painting of the center of the novel that sort of drives some of the action, is a incorrectly attributed Titian that was formally attributed to a Venetian painter called Palma Vecchio, a very well known Venetian painter who is Titian’s contemporary, but my man Gabriel gets that the authentication correct and the painting actually plays a very important role in certain elements in the plot. What I do in the novel is something that I’ve never really done before with the Allon series is that I take readers into art auctions. And they are, of course, wonderful venues for intrigue. I have never been to an art auction before, not a true high stakes one, and I was able to attend last fall’s post-war and contemporary auction at Christie’s in New York, and that is big money and big paintings, and it was nerve-wracking, fascinating and it – I was just so enthralled by it that it really had profound influence on the course of the novel after that.

HH: There are two great art auctions in scenes in Portrait of a Spy and in your end note you talk about going to this Christie’s – did Christie know that you were in the house that night and welcome you?

DS: I was at the elbow of a dear friend of mine who is a art consultant so if you want to build a collection you hire my friend and he advises you on what you should buy and how much you should pay for it and if you’re a very, very high net worth individual who doesn’t want to show his face at an art auction, my friend will do the bidding for you and buy you the painting at auction. As I was sitting next to him at Christies, he would be on the phone with his clients and giving them a sense of the room, giving them a sense of who else was bidding and then very carefully waiting into the process and keep giving them updates throughout but he is the one who pulls the trigger for the blind clients.

HH: It is an amazing, it is so fascinating and for people who have not read their first Gabriel Allon novel he is an art restorer and no mean artist himself and the world in which he moves for his cover as being a Mossad agent is the world of art and art restoration so this is a treat. Now my art historian friend who always borrows the book as soon as I’m done with it posed this question: Look, you’ve gone with the Titian before and his mentor Bellini in other books, and now you’ve got a Rothko in sort of a subsidiary role here. What is it about the colorists you like so much?

DS: [laughing] It’s Gabriel’s – it’s where he comes from in terms of his restoration. I think if you, if he had been left to his own devices and he had been allowed to graduate from art school and become an artist in his own right he would have been a very, very different painter, but when he couldn’t find it in himself to create art anymore after conducting a series of assassinations in retaliation for the Munich Olympic bombings, he took up restoration as his craft and he was gravitated towards Italian old masters and that’s just sort of where he comes from. A number of the books are set in Italy and in Venice in particular so it’s just sort of natural.

HH: One more insider art question from the professional here. Since he’s painting a portrait you chose a holy conversation as opposed to a portrait by Titian. Why did you do that, she was interested in asking?

DS: No, it’s a sacra conversazione. It’s a technique or a type of picture that Palma Vecchio helped to originate, and I was just using that to pull the threads through on the authentication.

HH: How much research do you have to do for a particular painting sort of a as you said one of these wholly conversations how many hours, days, months do you have to spend getting everything about that in front of you and absorbing it, Daniel Silva?

DS: I – one of the great joys about the series is that they reflect, the stories reflect the very unique makeup of Gabriel Allon themselves and so they are routed in both intelligence world and the world of art. I probably do as much if not more research on my art than I do on the intelligence matters and that’s a great treat. I’m very selfish in that way. I like to write about things that I like and so I do a lot of research, but I have a very, very smart restorer and art historian who is looking over my shoulder and over Gabriel’s shoulder to make sure that we don’t make any mistakes and he is a stickler because so many people in the restoration community and the broader art world read the series that we are very, very careful not to let anything sort of slip through that isn’t accurate because I will get those emails. I’m sure that you get those emails with your job, but I don’t like getting those emails.

HH: Well this has got the very technical restoration process where you were stretching the canvas and Gabriel is working up off the coast of . . .

DS: It’s called the relining.

HH: That was fascinating. Who taught you that, your buddy?

DS: Yeah. I’ve read technical matters on it and Gabriel because he’s working in his-for the listeners out there–paintings have be relined meaning a canvas has to be attached to the back of a canvas because a 400-year old canvas on a stretcher low and behold it stretches and it sags and the image distorts and it gets damaged around the stretcher and the frame so it has to be relined periodically. So you adhere a supporting canvas to the back of the original canvas and it can be a perilous process because it involves heat, pressure, glue, moisture-all things that paintings don’t like so Gabriel does it the old fashioned way with a glue of his own concoction and an iron when he does it, but I was just actually in the restoration labs of the Vatican a couple of weeks ago and in a high tech restoration lab they use these pressure tables that create a down draft so you adhere the two canvases together in a very safe manner.

HH: That must have been a fascinating-that will show up in a future book.

DS: Yes, it will.

HH: Before the first break I have technical question on the thriller writing side. A few days after the killing of Bin Laden I thought of you and a couple of my other most valued guests who write great thrillers and I thought this may greatly complicate your life.

DS: You have no idea!

HH: I can see no scene. I really can’t.

DS: Well, that’s because while the rest of America was celebrating Bin Laden’s much deserved demise, I was sitting with my book, my copy edited manuscript on my lap that very night re-writing certain passages of the novel. Bin Laden was not a full fledged character in the novel, but he was referenced in the novel being alive and for better or worse I’m not a writer who has finished books in the pipeline, I publish a book and then I write a book and so my deadlines are very close to publication so on that night the book was done, but it had not gone to the printer and so I was able to quickly make some recalibrations and as a result I have what is probably the first thriller to refer to Bin Laden has a decedent.

HH: That is what is so amazing and seamlessly.

DS: It is up to the minute.

HH [laughing]

DS: It is up to the minute and you know what? When you’re writing a thriller the worst thing you can do is to be writing about yesterday’s headlines and yesterday’s news and you want to be writing about tomorrow’s news.

HH And that is what A Portrait of a Spy does–Daniel Silva’s brand new Gabriel Allon novel. We will talk now about the themes of the book. We’ve done the art and I’ve talked about the technical side. We talk about the Arab spring and what it means when we return to the Hugh Hewitt.

***

HH: I am joined this hour by Daniel Silva, author of course of the many wonderful books in the Gabriel Allon series, the most recent of which comes out today. Portrait of a Spy is in book stores across the United States. I have linked it at HughHewitt.com. It is a New York Times bestseller just by dent by the legions of you who annually look for this to and prove your summer vacation. Daniel Silva, it’s about the Arab Spring. Last week I had on Ambassador Michael Lauren on for a long chat and he was very cautious about what’s going on in Egypt. A caution that infuses this entire book indeed. I don’t know if you’re a pessimist about what’s going to happy their but you certainly cast a weary eye on the forces that are unleashed by the Arab Spring.

DS: Let me say first and foremost that Michael is a dear friend of mine.

HH: Okay, I didn’t know that.

DS: And we have had many long and impassioned conversations about the Arab Spring and what it means. I think, first of all, I lived in Egypt. I worked in the Middle East and I lived around the corner from Tahrir Square and used to cross Tahrir Square everyday to get to my office.

HH: Okay.

DS: The site of tens of thousands of Egyptians, ordinary Egyptians gathered in that square it just blew me away. And I had forecast something like this in one of my earlier novels. Even so, I was stunned by it. There is a wonderful line in one of the Jurastic Park films-I forget which one-just Jeff Goldbloom’s character says in effect it starts with ooo and ahhh and then there’s the running and the screaming. We’ve had the ooo and ahhh part. I’m afraid that we could get to the running and the screaming part pretty quickly.

HH: One of the haunting lines in Portrait of a Spy which I quoted in my review as on page 401, where one of the really bad guys in the novel says, “Surely, Allon,” to Gabriel Allon, “a man such as yourself is not so naive as to think this great Arab awakening is going to produce Western style democracy in the Middle East, the revolt might have started with the students and the seculists but the brothers will have the last word. We are the future.” That’s really chilling

DS: That’s not a bad line, is it?

HH: No, that’s a great paragraph actually!

DS: [laughing] Wow. That’s not a bad line. Listen, I don’t think we can expect nor should we expect that the Arab world or the broader Islamic world is gong to adopt Western style democracy. Islam has to play some role. That said, that could be a really positive thing. If we can engage the Islamists, and I going to draw a distinction between the Islamists, the Islamists and the jihadists, okay? But if we can draw the Islamists into the system and get them to engage in their own societies and not spend their time plotting attacks against the United States, this could be a very, very positive development. I mean this Arab awakening is obviously a great challenge but it is also a great opportunity.

HH: Your Israeli characters in this book I think are channeling a lot of what I understand to be the Israeli view of this which I just mentioned from the Ambassador which is watch that space. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. And Shamron, who for the benefit of the audience that have not yet read this the wise old man, the veteran of the Israeli independence and the wars and all of the different intelligence operations over the past 40+ years he’s the most skeptical of all so it that sort of the Israeli realist looking at this, Daniel Silva?

DS: I would say that’s an accurate reflection of their point of view. I think that there was widespread alarm, if not panic in certain quarters, as the Mubarak regime was falling, and why not? I mean here was Israel had taken this great leap of faith, this great step and it invested so many years in this peace treaty with the Egyptians and the regime that is attached to that treaty went away with the help of the United States. There was some contentious moments during those couple of days and so they have a lot invested in this and let’s be realistic about the state of modern Egypt. We are talking about 80 some million people living on a ribbon of land living along the Nile and the Nile delta. There are Israeli intelligence officers and policymakers who I spoke with-I was just in Israel the last couple of weeks who fear that Egypt-once the center of the Arab world is headed towards absolute chaos. A failed state of 80 to 90 million people. This is what they are looking at as sort of the worst case scenario and then sort of look around their perimeter. You got Hezbollah running Lebanon in the North. You have Hamas in charge of Gaza. You have not a civil war but really Syria is burning. Jordan-who knows what could happen there and so they are looking at an unstable region with a newly resurgent Turkey with an Iran that wants and has designs of being the hegemonistic power in the region.

HH: I’m curious . . .

DS: It’s a tense time and then the President tells them that they have to go back to 1967. . .

HH: Oh, we’ve got to talk about that!

DS: That’s another topic.

HH: There is a great commentary in Portrait of a Spy for the audience about President Obama though not by name and people have to read it for that, but I’m curious in Israel-I’m going to be there in a couple of weeks and I’m going to look and see if Portrait of a Spy or Rembrandt Affair are on the shelves. How do these books sell in Israel?

DS: They sell – they are about a book behind in Hebrew right now so I think The Defector is the one that is in Hebrew, but they come into Israel in English and I will relay a short story. I toured a facility for severally handicapped and disabled children in the Negev that is run by a friend of mine, a former military man and while I was there groups of IDF doctors were touring the facility as well. When I was introduced to them, they knew my name, their faces lit up. I have a lot of fans in Israel.

HH: That’s got to be-I wonder do you have a relationship with some of the people in the intelligence business there as you must have in the United States do they talk to you about trade craft and things like that?

DS: No, not necessarily trade craft but I have friends in both communities. I’ll leave it at that.

HH: When we come back, I’m gong to talk about the Special Forces in Israel and about the operation. Again, I always interview Daniel Silva without giving away any of the plot because I think that’s counter productive but the Portrait of a Spy for those of you who have already sunk your teeth into the Allon series and come back every summer you are gong to be very well rewarded-very well rewarded. Those of you who have not started, I make my annual appeal to you go back to the beginning and read forward and you will find yourself doing so at a brisk pace.

***

HH: Thirty-Four minutes after the hour, America. It’s Hugh Hewitt with Daniel Silva, bestselling author of the Gabriel Allon series. The brand new Allon book, Portrait of a Spy, is in bookstores everywhere. New York Times bestseller obviously! Many of you have been waiting and have preordered the book, and if you’re new to the series start with the first one and go to Daniel Silva’s website and you can read them in the correct order there. Daniel, before I go into the stuff about jihad which makes this such an important book, I do not know much about and I’m going to mispronounce it the Sayeret Matkal which is their Special Forces which play a role in this book which I don’t think I’ve ever seen American literature before. Have you talked about this group before?

DS: In Hebrew it’s Sayeret Matkal. They are Israel’s famed, famed Special Forces. There are many, many different divisions of the Sayeret, but no I need I a rescue operation and extraction from a certain Persian Gulf emirate. And so I do bring a team of Sayeret officers onto Arab soil and look, it’s no secret that Israel has incredible special forces that are able to operate not only in the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza but throughout the region. They have carried out some of the most famed paramilitary operations ever like the raid on Entebbe, for example. And so they step onto the page. I’ve had references to them before but this is the first time that I’ve actually put a couple guys on page.

HH: Quote: “They look like Arabs, they move like Arabs and they even wear cologne that made them smell like Arabs” that’s on page 382 of the novel. When I read that, I thought this must have been similar to the SEAL operation that actually got Bin Laden and to write about a special operation in. . . .

DS: These are a little different though. We have great special ops too. There are units of this force that these guys can be put into any Arab country and no one would give them a second look.

HH: Isn’t that amazing.

DS: They are highly trained, very talented and very lethal.

HH: Let’s turn to the theme of jihad because I think it’s been a while since a serious book and I this is, of course, a great entertaining thriller but it’s also a serious sort of look at what’s going on in the mind of the jihadists here. Anwar Al-Awlaki is sort of cast in fictional form here. Quote: “His Yemen background is a disturbing connection to two of the 9/11 hijackers in San Diego and Northern Virginia and his apparent journey from moderation to terror” he emphasis your and it really underscores the problem that Western and Israeli intelligence confronts with the well, the deep covered jihadists.

DS: It is. I have been fascinated with Anwar Al-Awlaki for a very long time. I looked very, very hard at the evidence and his ties to 9/11 and I was always mystified by how this guy could have ever gotten away because it is clear that he probably had some tie to the 9/11 plot. Whether he was provided money or shelter or logistical support something-there were just too many coincidences and a number of people that I have talked to including some very, very senior people in the US intelligence community believe that he had a role in 9/11 but he was an American person with an American passport. He was preaching at a Mosque 5 miles from my house here in Virginia. I live in Washington and he was in Falls Church, Virginia. Can you imagine?

HH: Yeah.

DS: It just boggles the mind and now he’s in Yemen and he’s considered probably the most dangerous terrorist on the planet right now.

HH: The character in the book is a creation of Adrian Carter.

DS: He is a fictitious creation and there are some-there’s a story that I created that I don’t want to give too much away about the CIA’s role in that.

HH: It’s fascinating and your description of Adrian Carter who is the stand-in for the Chief for Counter Intelligence of the United States, the black sites, the extraordinary renditions, the enhancing interrogation methods they all bore Carter’s fingerprints. He felt no remorse for his action he had in that luxury for Adrian Carter every morning was 9/12 never again he vowed would he watch Americans hurdling themselves from burning skyscrapers because they could no longer bear the heat of a terrorist fire. The timeliness of Portrait of a Spy of course is that the Obama Administration has finally given up the prosecution of the CIA people.

DS: It’s long overdue in my opinion. I know the person who I cast that the real Adrian Carter-I know what he went through. I know the guilt that he felt over the inability of the CIA to prevent the attack. I know that he fell on his knees in a church on the night of September 11th and prayed because that was the only available thing to him that night.

HH: Daniel Silva, stand by. Portrait of a Spy is his new book. I’ll be right back with him.

***

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt joined by Daniel Silva and what I hope is an annual ritual for many years to come when his new book hits. The new one is Portrait of a Spy. It’s riveting. It’s serious. It is in bookstores and it is linked at HughHewitt.com. When we went to break Daniel and you were talking about the professionals in the American intelligence community who you are very sympathetic to through your characters throughout and they finally have been–not exonerated-I don’t know what the word is but released.

DS: Let off the hook. I mean look I do not support every aspect of our counter terrorism program. We don’t need to refight all those battles now, but I have never supported the idea of prosecuting men and women who did what we asked them to do. I mean we, the President, the Congress, their leaders in the CIA and we the American people. I just never supported the idea, and I hope that no one is ever prosecuted for anything that had happened.

HH: In the book when the intelligence professionals of three countries gather-again at Hewitt Farm, I’m very glad it still is in operation. By the way, I noted the appearance of Roger and Cresse on Canon Street near St. Paul’s with a wink at the audience but the political appointee interlopes. He shows up. That’s just a wonderful scene because nobody wants him around. How often does that happen in your experience Daniel Silva where the pros have to roll their eyes and put up with whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, the non-professional?

DS: I think it happens more than we realize, but it was meant to be illustrative of politics entering the war on terrorism and if you don’t think that politics have entered the war on terrorism then you’re pretty naive. I mean it’s been politicized from the very, very beginning, and I think that that character sort of represents the current Administration as it came into office and I think even some of the President’s supporters would stipulate that the Administration made some missteps early on the terrorism brief. They promised to close Guantanamo and they couldn’t get that done. They completely goofed up the KSM trial issue. They were kind of off wrong-footed response to Fort Hood and Detroit and the Time Square plots-sort of the left the impression, rightly or wrongly, but it left the impression that they just weren’t serious about terrorism. There is a wonderful quote in Peter Bergen’s incredible book The Longest War that he quotes President Obama in a meeting after the Christmas day plot and said we dodged a bullet. If that bomb had exploded on that plane and the plane had fallen out of the sky, his presidency would have been crippled and it would have been a very, very different Administration right now. They got lucky on that one. That said, he did get Bin Laden-I should say that Bin Laden happened on his watch and any President would have made the same decision and he has ironically adopted the previous Administration’s policies almost lock, stock and barrel.

HH: In conveying this wonderful plot, you spend a lot of time talking about jihad and terrorism and, in fact, you quote Al-Awalaki at one point saying “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon team.” At the end of your book you talk about your study group. It got some very serious and very smart people including Jeffrey Goldberg and David Brooks in it and you live in Washington, D.C. do you think that the sort of official Washington or permanent Washington I mean the opinion and government class is taking this stuff seriously still or are they giving it away? I saw a source code recently and the bad guy was back to being a unabomber as opposed to a jihadist and I’m thinking that we’ve lost that focus that was there 10 years ago.

DS: Um, I think that al-Qaeda we’re 10 years removed from 9/11. I don’t think any of us could have dared to imagine that al-Qaeda central you know, old core al-Qaeda would be in as bad of shape as it is now. The leadership has been decimated. Bin Laden is gone. Their ranks have been depleted. Their ability to launch a true Bin Laden type spectacular has been eroded and I do think at a certain point we have to try to return to something like normal. It’s never going to happen, but something like normal. I actually am cautiously optimistic that perhaps-just perhaps-the sun might be setting on this age of terror that we have lived through. I think from at least the point of view of jihadists trying to strike at the West I am going to grit my teeth-I still believe there is going to be an attack, but I think that is possible that it is starting to recede. Unfortunately, it is not going to recede anytime soon in the Middle East itself and every single day practically – we just had Mumbai, we just had another suicide bombing in Afghanistan. It is the Muslims who pay the highest price in terms of blood for this insane ideology of the jihadists.

HH: And the ideology is very well presented in Portrait of a Spy as is one of the great reasons for hope. You have a heroine who is an Arab woman and I’m not going to say anything more about it because it’s a wonderful character, but have you gotten reactions to this character yet?

DS: I have. She is-there is another quote in the beginning of the novel after Al-Awlaki there’s a quote from Ellie Wiesel that says, “One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference between life and death.” And this is what this character represents. That person of integrity. That person that we’ve been asking for to stand up and confront the jihadists and say good grief in God’s name can you stop this.

HH: Is that story you tell about the gatherer of sparks genuinely Talmudic teaching? Or is that something . . .

DS: No, no. It’s called Tikkun Olam in the Jewish tradition and it is the repair of the world and that is described as accurate.

HH: I’ll tell you theology, art, espionage and thrills. One more segment with Daniel Silva but you’ll want to go get Portrait of a Spy. When we come back we talk about the future of Europe in two and a half minutes.

***

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt concluding a wonderful hour with Daniel Silva. Daniel, it occurs to me that I’ve barely talked to you about Gabriel in this hour.

DS: That’s okay.

HH: It’s so interesting that my friend Michelle said that the portraits of Gabriel and Chiara and Zoey and others are so much more developed in her opinion in this, but I find him fully formed and I don’t know what he does next. Is he coming back next year?

DS: Yes.

HH: Good. That’s number one. Number two, Shamron gives a speech in the middle of the book where he says, “Our European friends are in the midst of a full blown existential crisis. I’m convinced it’s one of the reasons they despise us, meaning the Israeli’s, we have a purpose. We believe our cause is just. They believe in nothing except their 35-hour work week, their global warming and their six weeks vacation in the South.” That’s harsh. How much of that do you agree with?

DS: You know what? Every word that comes out of my characters mouths I do not agree with. I find this fascinating that people actually think that. I mean, Thomas Harris writes a character who likes to eat people. . .

HH: [laughing]

DS: But no one sort of asks Thomas Harris well do you like to eat people and so. . .

HH: But everybody likes Shamron, right?

DS: He’s the man. He is the straw that stirs the drink and look, if you talk to Israeli policymakers right now and people in the business there is a tremendous gulf that has developed between Europe and Israel in the last few years. We are all aware of it and it’s particularly ironic at least from the Israeli point of few because if the Holocaust hadn’t taken place and if Jews had been permitted to live their lives in peace without fear of pogroms and other things in Europe, Ashkenazi Jews would be living in Europe. There would be millions and millions and millions more Ashkenazi Jews alive. There would be no such thing as Israel. It is because of Europe’s behavior that started the Zionist spark in the first place and so to suffer so much ill will and scorn from Europe, its people, and many, many in government and their religious community is a little tough to take for a lot of Israelis.

HH: And I very accurately represented I hope as well that you are not as pessimistic about Saudi Arabia as your characters . . .

DS: I am actually. I mean the memos that came out about a year ago that Wikileaks put out that Hillary Clinton bemoaning the fact that 10 years after 9/11 they are still the cash machine for terrorism and Sunni extremists. The Saudis and the United Arab Ermiates, I mean, come on!

HH: It is all detailed in Portrait of a Spy. I’ve linked it at HughHewitt.com. Go out and get it or go to Daniel Silva’s website and get them all. Thank you, Dan.

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