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The spy who copes with the Holocaust

Gabriel Allon returns in Daniel Silva's latest

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Gabriel Allon, the moody star of Daniel Silva's highly acclaimed series of espionage thrillers, is not everyone's favorite person, even to himself.

The child of Holocaust survivors, whose own wife and child were blown to pieces by a Palestinian terrorist, Gabriel is -- in his creator's words -- a "reluctant destroyer."

Allon is a free-lance art restorer but also covert Mossad hit man, dispatched to wherever frescoes are in disrepair, a pawn of his merciless boss, Israeli spymaster Ari Shamron.

The latest installment of Silva's "accidental trilogy" is "A Death in Vienna" (Putnam). It follows "The English Assassin" and "The Confessor," though Allon first appeared in Silva's 2000 novel, "The Kill Artist."

The trilogy has, by turns, dealt with what Silva calls "the unfinished business of the Holocaust." While the pre-trilogy Allon book "The Kill Artist" was a fairly standard revenge tale, "The English Assassin" (2002) dealt with Nazi plunder concealed within the Swiss banking system, and "The Confessor" (2003) with Vatican participation (or lack thereof) during the Holocaust.

'Always fascinated by the morality of the Vatican'

"A Death in Vienna" again takes up Vatican dirty deeds, this time taking on the thorny topic of the postwar Vatican "ratline," which smuggled high-ranking war criminals out of Europe.

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"You can argue until you're blue in the face about whether Pius [XII, the pope during World War II] should have spoken out, or should this have happened, or whatever," Silva said. "But to me, the most revealing aspect of the Vatican's attitude toward the Holocaust [is] the fact that they helped guys like Franz Stangel [commandant of the Treblinka death camp] flee Europe after the war.

"The book is clearly inspired by the research I'd done for 'The Confessor,' " he added. "In a lot of ways it's 'The Confessor,' part two. ... I was always fascinated by the morality of the Vatican, or arms of it, getting involved in the trafficking of Nazi war criminals after the war."

Silva enjoys digging through old news. The author is a former journalist (and former Washington-based CNN producer) who is married to NBC "Today" correspondent Jamie Gangel.

The tales involving the Vatican lead to another one: American involvement in spiriting high-ranking Nazis out of Russian hands, primarily through the infamous OSS/CIA operation known as "Paperclip."

"They weren't the only ones," Silva said of Vatican people-smuggling. "Our government did too, and they used not only German rocket scientists [such as Werner von Braun] and intelligence officers [such as Reinhard Gehlen, who became the father of West Germany's postwar intelligence service], but guys who were in the SS and Gestapo. ... It was very embarrassing for the U.S. to say in the 1980s, 'Yeah, we employed Klaus Barbie.' "

Moral conundrums

Not that Silva sees such activities as entirely unreasonable."[The U.S.] saw a threat at the end of the war from the [USSR] for which it was completely unprepared, and it used the assets that were available. It was a question of realpolitik, it was bareknuckled intelligence," he said.

"I've had lots of great debates and discussions with friends of mine about this -- 'Would you have done it? Would you have used SS officers?' ... I wish we hadn't personally, I'm not pollyannish about it, I'd like to think that we wouldn't knowingly hire people linked to the Final Solution to be our assets, but unfortunately that wasn't true [at the time]."

Silva works to personalize the issues within the scenarios of his characters, however, which has contributed to his novels' readability and popularity. His books have been translated into 19 languages, and he is an Israeli bestseller in both English and Hebrew.

"A Death in Vienna" builds on the pattern of its predecessors.

"It's clearly the most personal book," Silva said. "The fact that Gabriel is a child of Holocaust survivors has been dealt with, and clearly the guy suffers from melancholia that one might associate with second-generation survivor syndrome.

"But I never really delved into what his mother was like and what happened to her during the war, and it tells the story about this family that I've never told before, and the impact it had on him."


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