Book Review: Prisoner X by Rafael Epstein

The shady underworld of espionage is one of those uncomfortable truths that is an essential part of state security but something we, the general public, know very little about. However, in reading Rafael Epstein’s new book, Prisoner X, we come to discover what can happen when a spy falls out of line, be it via reckless conduct, negligence or even treason.Epstein’s biographical retelling of the life of Ben Zygier, an Australian man turned Mossad spy who was found dead in an Israeli maximum security prison in late 2010, is a confusing web of half-truths, exaggerations and denials that raises more questions than it actually answers. This is no criticism to Epstein as he has to contend with sources unwilling to be identified, friends and family with their lips sealed and government agents desperately attempting to protect their beloved country’s image. Epstein, an acquaintance of Zygier’s during their formative years, explores the story of a man with psychological wounds that may never have healed, despite his immense personal confidence and fierce intelligence. Zygier’s passion for the state of Israel from an early age, solidified during his time as a member of Netzer, a Zionist youth movement; leads Epstein to question the notion that emerged in the wake of Zygier’s death, that he was a traitor to Israel. As Epstein briefly details Zygier’s time in the Israeli army, we become aware of his psychological wounds and the continued assertion by friends and anonymous sources that he was never fit for the life of a man in the shadows (a spy). Epstein’s laconic and measured voice, which regularly features on ABC Radio also emerges in his writing. In his book, he paints a picture of Israel that is both vivid and thought provoking; something that is particularly important given that Israel is such an enigmatic state. Interestingly, a chapter of the book is named ‘enigma’ which pinpoints the stereotypical character of a spy as well as the very nature of Israel. Whether this was an intentional choice by Epstein is not particularly relevant. What is relevant is Zygier’s remarkable connection with his homeland and the magnetic pull that continually saw him answer the call of the Mossad, despite his better judgement. One of the most striking passages tells of Epstein having a coffee in Tel Aviv when he observes that a couple sitting next to him do not notice an Apache attack helicopter fly above them. He muses that ‘only in Israel do the machine of the military mix so innocuously with the modern shopping experience’. Epstein deals with the complexity of the Israeli situation, both geographically and ideologically, in a way that only a man who has spent a considerable amount of time in the country could. This in turn allows the reader to appreciate just how convoluted life in Israel can be. Throughout the book Epstein continues to reiterate how small decisions led to the eventual demise of Zygier. Epstein’s choice to wrap up each chapter and sub-section by reminding us of things we have already discovered is rather frustrating, but make it clear that the road to Zygier’s death is almost as mysterious to the author as it is to the curious reader. While the biggest bombshell of the book is the alternative theory on why Israel viewed Zygier as a big enough security threat to isolate him in a maximum security prison, the most troubling aspect is the grand scale of the secrecy surrounding this imprisonment and the circumstances that led to his death. Epstein delicately details how the intrigue surrounding someone viewed by many as a charming and well-mannered family man was swallowed up by the greater desire to keep Israel’s affairs a firmly guarded secret. There are few people willing to talk to Epstein and fewer still who will identify themselves, which speaks volumes about Israel as a state. Epstein battles through these limitations to find that Zygier was destroyed by the brutal, archaic and monstrous removal of his human rights by Mossad in conjunction with the Israeli government. The book also demonstrates Australia’s gross failure in its duty of care to one of its citizens. One could argue that Prisoner X asks more questions than it answers, but it also ably details each stage of Zygier’s involvement with Israel, from youth through to his eventual death as ‘Prisoner X’. In doing so, Epstein reveals how a character like Zygier, outwardly charismatic and confident, inwardly a fractured man, became a nameless body slumped in the showerblock of Ayalon prison. This is one of those rare books that has to be read to be believed, such is the magnitude of the scenario. Both easily accessible and a serious page turner, Prisoner X is a must read for those interested in Israeli affairs and political manoeuvring and intrigue.  4 out of 5 stars Review by William Balme 

March 12th 2014
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