Arthur Koestler's discussion of the dilemma of Palestine in "Thieves in the Night" continues his work of reducing political events and ideologies to personal terms through the medium of the novel.
And, once again, Koestler succeeds in producing a brilliant on-the-spot political report and an effective piece of propaganda for a cause. At the same time, perhaps inevitably, "Thieves in the Night" fails to satisfy completely as a novel, for its characters are political types rather than integrated personalities.
Joseph, an English Jew, presenting Koestler's views, is confronted with the fundamental question plaguing all Palestinian Jews both today and during the 1937-1939 period in which the action of the book takes place: can the Jewish need for a home in Palestine be better met by the peaceful text-book tactics which have brought frustration, or by the more expedient terrorist activities tainted with the unsavory odor of gangsterism? It takes Joseph two years to decide upon the second course. Through Joseph's eyes, Koestler gives the reader a vivid impression of a typical Marxist agricultural commune, and the immense difficulties involved in buying desert and turning it into a self-sustaining home are presented in detail. Joseph contrasts the high-strung, intellectual European Jew with the ". . . blond, freckled, broad-featured, heavy-boned farmers' sons, peasant lads . . . and slightly dull,"--the new Jewish strain developing in Palestine.
Always concerned with the relevance of personal psychology upon political events, Koestler dissects the Arab-British-Jewish triangle and finds that the British colonial administrators, "not the best type of Englishman," feel uncomfortable and ineffectual in their dealings with the legalistically impeccable but personally over-intense Jewish leaders, represented in the book by the Zionist Executive member, Glickstein. The British naturally favor the Arabs, over whom they feel comfortably superior along "the white man's burden" lines, and whose colorful tribal customs and indifferent air appeal to their more romantic nature. Koestler's British Commissioner admits to the "impartial observer," an American correspondent, that he sees the incongruity in the Arab desire to seel their land to Jews at fabulous prices, on the one hand, and Arab insistence upon owning and ruling Palestine, on the other. But the British issue the 1939 White Paper curtailing Jewish immigration and halting Jewish land purchases, and Joseph, still undecided, begins to see the futility of bargaining.
Joseph's decision to become a terrorist, however, is precipitated by the Arab murder of the woman he loves, Dina. It hardly seems fair to hinge the major decision of the book on this one incident, but Koestler probably justifies this disturbing reasoning on the grounds that it is just some such private crisis that makes up mens' minds on more broadly ideological questions. Aside from this one questionable bit, Koestler's argument is both fairly and illuminatingly presented. Arabs and British as well as Jews are given a chance to speak their pieces effectively and clearly; Joseph, Koestler's voice, does not monopolize the argument.
Koestler's deadpan, newspaper style of writing, with its emphasis upon understatement, suggests impartiality and permits objective writing, as in the courtroom and 1939 riot chapters, to gain great emotional force and a continual atmosphere of tension. Unfortunately, Koestler's people disappear just as they begin to become interesting as individuals, but what they have to say and think is vivid and unmistakable. For "Thieves in the Night" is more than mere debate. It is essentially a remarkably exciting narrative presentation of a political philosophy on a high intellectual level that should have appeal for all readers, whether or not they are immediately interested in the problem of Palestine.