18 November 2018

Review - Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

Cover design by Sarah Anne Langton
Unholy Land
Lavie Tidhar
Tachyon Publications, November 2018
PB, 255pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via Netgalley. (I have also bought a signed copy - Forbidden Planet in London has them in!)

This is a bewildering and brilliant alternate history. Tidhar imagines a Jewish homeland that might have been, a tract of land actually offered (really offered, I mean, in real history) by the United Kingdom in high Imperial mode in Central Africa and considered, however briefly, as an alternative to Palestine. (The views of the previous inhabitants weren't, of course, canvassed).

What might our world be like, if that offer had been accepted? How would things stand in Africa? How would they stand in Palestine? What else would be different?

A man, Lior Tirosh, a writer, flies back to Palestina (that might-have-been state) from Berlin. He's a writer of pulpy detective novels, son of a famous general, returning to visit his ill father. Tirosh remembers, sometimes, a son Isaac; sometimes he doesn't. In his conversations with his agent he refers to a possible book casting an alternate universe Adolf Hitler as a seedy private detective.

Hang on... I read that book... it was A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar.

Tirosh has also written a book called Osama.

As has Tidhar.

There are layers and layers to this book. A writer returns to his homeland. A people find, or are given, a homeland. Another people loses theirs. Many are saved, or lost, and the world pivots. In the world Tirosh inhabits, for example, things turned out sufficiently differently that in a refugee camp, the "Red Swastika" is an equivalent symbol to the Red Cross, Crescent, or Star of David. Tidier isn't afraid to take his idea to shocking conclusions any more than he was in A Man Lies Dreaming. Yet even in this different world, echoes remain, with the same tragedy of people displaced, with echoes of genocide, camps, an armed struggle, and the same security response, as in our present day.

It's a deeply unsettling book, asking questions, perhaps, both about individual responsibility and about the shape of history. Through them all, Tirosh ambles, a bit lost, seeming to forget, at times, who he actually is. Affected perhaps by all the possibilities Tidhar has granted, he remembers who he might have been, as it were. That is both engaging - Tirosh is very human and hapless, not, for most  of the book, a fictional protagonist and also frustrating: he doesn't provide any answers (this isn't a book of answers).

The story also follows two others. There is Bloom, a security official in Palestina, and Nur, who seems to work for another agency from outside. It's not clear to begin with whether they are working together or at cross purposes, but they both seem to have an interest in the blundering Tirosh who himself increasingly assumes the persona of a gumshoe, setting out to ask questions and find the truth. But while he may have written about private eyes, he doesn't seem well fitted to actually be one. Is this real life, one may ask, or is it just a fantasy? Either way, bullets kill and walls divide. There is a kind of dead heart at the centre of this story with real consequences for those who might - or might not - have been saved if history had taken a different course.

It's a deeply troubling, deeply thought provoking read, no less for the lush evocation of the Jewish State in Africa: the colours and light of that continent, as well as the imagination Tidhar uses to weave his imaginary country. You might almost swear he'd been there.

I don't want to say exactly what happens in the end because there are twists that should only emerge slowly. It's the kind of book you may want to go back and reread, looking out for little hints once you really understand them. It's also a book that refuses to be sidetracked by action or plot, however tempting that may be: the final third could, for example, have been a great deal longer with much that is sketched out given in detail, but that would I think be to obscure the central idea behind too much running around and shooting. Instead Tidhar gives the bigger picture and leaves much of the detail to the reader's imagination - a risky judgement but one that really pays off since it lets this book be much, much odder that you might expect.

It's probably a bit trite to say that given the facts of actual Jewish history in the 20th century, alternatives, might-have-beens, other turns and possibilities, will always fascinate. As Tidhar explains in his Historical Afterword, speculative fiction was anyway part of the events leading to what would become Israel, long before that awful historical weight became a factor. But it's impossible to read this book without it provoking that sense of how different things might have been, and the good and bad that might have followed from that.

But perhaps that is true of all history, and isn't it really the basis of any fiction?

As you may guess, this book has left my head buzzing.

I'd strongly recommend you read it, and set yours buzzing too.

Other reviews of Lavie's books:

Central Station
A Man Lies Dreaming

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