Michel Anton is a likeable, earnest young man who’s quite the survivor. As he says early on in “Shake Off,” he was born in the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut, “just one of the many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians born outside Palestine who has never actually set foot there.” He doesn’t drink alcohol but not because he’s a Muslim. He isn’t. His Lebanese passport – the only legitimate passport of many he carries – contains his real surname - Khoury, which he says is a common Arab Christian name meaning priest.
He’s also an orphan, having lost his family to the brutality of the region when he was much younger. He came under the tutelage of Abu Leila, who’s become a second father to him and convinces him that peace is a cause worth living – and dying – for. Abu Leila, a mysterious individual, also has seen to Michel’s education – in the classroom and on the street, turning him into an effective PLO operative. Thus, Michel speaks several languages, can break down weapons and pick locks in quick order and knows all about dead drops and eluding tails. In discussing why he takes some of the precautions he takes, he notes with pride the tradecraft he has learned. Mostly Michel runs errands for Abu Leila, carrying messages and packages to other mysterious individuals around Europe.
He’s not sure what his purpose is, other than to do Abu Leila’s bidding, and to make some his troubles go away, he’s acquired an addiction to codeine, which he takes in pill form at night.
He’s slow to trust and whenever he encounters an attractive woman, he wonders if she’s a plant. So it is that while serving as a student in London, he is attracted to Helen, a Scottish woman in an adjacent room in his dwelling who’s an antiquities student and is having an affair with her adviser, a married man. Michel and Helen become acquainted, then close – or as close as Michel will dare. While she goes off to a dig in Turkey, Michel, at Abu Leila’s behest, rents an estate in Cambridge that’s ostensibly to host a meeting at which individuals will work toward a one-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians.
Shortly thereafter Abu Leila summons Michel to meet him in Germany, a meeting at which Michel is to give his mentor a sealed envelope he’s acquired.
As the two are walking in public – something Abu Leila had warned against ever doing – a motorcyclist guns Abu Leila down. Michel, in grief and shock at the assassination, flees – with the sealed envelope. He doesn’t know what to do with it; nor does he know to whom to turn. He had worked only for Abu Leila.
Michel suddenly realizes how little he really knows about Abu Leila and the world of spies. Unfortunately, though he didn’t know much about Abu Leila, others knew plenty. And they’re following him.
Michel has no choice but to place his trust in Helen. She asks him if he is a terrorist and he truthfully says he isn’t. She takes him to her home in Scotland, where he tells her how his family died, shows her his passports and stockpile of cash and where she discovers his stocks of codeine.
He begins to realize how lucky he is to have met her but they don’t have much time to savor the feeling because they’re still being pursued.
Knowing they must split up to protect her, Michel sees Helen off at the airport and walks goes into coffee shop to await his fate and to finally open the sealed envelope.
It contents are just one of a number of surprises that make “Shake Off” a fascinating read.
The espionage shelves are filled with stories from the U.S., British and Israeli perspective. The Palestinian slant is, at the very least, instructive. The author, Mischa Hiller, was raised in London, Beirut and Dar es Salaam, and now lives in Cambridge. He previously published “Sabra Zoo.”
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial editor.