I absolutely loved Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (and was not alone in that), and while his newest, Unholy Land (2018), didn’t blow me away quite to the same extent, it kept me on the couch in “don’t talk to me I’m reading” and “uh-huh, uh-huh, ya don’t say, uh-huh” mode all afternoon while my family just rolled their eyes and gave up, as they know to do when all the signs of being engrossed in a great book are manifest (luckily, they live those moments as well, so it’s a fond eyeroll… )
The novel is set in an alternate universe setting where the Jewish homeland of Palestina appears not in the Middle East but in East Africa, a homeland formed before the Final Solution occurred (a forward explains how this is based on an actual idea pre-dating the creation of Israel). The book follows three characters: the main character Lior Tirosh via typical third-person narration, a ruthless security agent via first-person, and a mysterious third actor via second person.
Lior Tirosh (suspiciously similar to Lavie Tidhar) is a middling science-fiction and mystery writer who had left Palestina for Europe long ago but has now returned. The country is in turmoil, with terrorist attacks, protests, and the construction of a huge wall to keep out refugees (those who had been expelled from the land so Palestina could be formed). In short order Lior witnesses a horrific bombing, is caught up in a murder, and learns his niece, an anthropology/folklore student who’d been protesting against the wall, is missing. Things actually spiral downward from there.
But things had begun to go strange well before then. The reader is teased from the beginning by all sorts of weird tidbits: the way Tirosh’s memories don’t seem to cohere, vaguely foreboding hints about his young son, an odd emphasis on the word “outsider,” references to “strange sightings of ice age carnivores the locals had named Ngoloko or Kerit …,” or to how “organisms can disguise themselves visually in a foreign environment.” All of these, combined with the disorienting and often sudden shifts in POV, including that unnamed second person “you,” create a wonderfully surreal, unnerving, and compelling atmosphere, where, similar to Tirosh, the reader is never ever on firm ground.
And it all creeps in at such a wonderfully glacial pace. Such as that reference to his son that you’re so smugly sure you know where it’s going, what Tidhar is doing there, but then it takes a little sidling hop and suddenly you think you know but then again, maybe… and then the light slants in a different way, and then there’s a change in temperature, and then and then and somehow, in as dully mundane and banal a fashion as you can imagine (think airports, think bureaucracy) you’re in a completely different world than you thought you were.
That sense is both metaphorical and literal, because — and since it’s noted on the back of Unholy Land, I don’t feel it’s too spoilerish to say this — eventually what comes clear is this is not simply an alternate history but a book set in a multiverse (the “sephirot”) full of alternate histories, complete with people who can travel between them — some more easily than others, some more intentionally than others. Such a set-up allows Tidhar to explore several themes: the creation and guarding of borders, questions over do walls shut out or shut in, ethical conundrums over what acts are allowed if done with good intentions, the old stand-by of is it OK to kill some to save more, the construction of memory and self, the desire to belong somewhere, the bond between people and land, determinism, the possibility that different historical choices would lead to different results (or not), and more. And of course, explorations as well of the political morass that is the Middle East, though such questions can easily be broadened to conflicts around the world and throughout history.
It’s a heady mix and one can easily linger a while to think such moments through as they appear on the page. And it’s not the only esoteric facet, as one could argue for a metafictional point here as well, what with the main character being an author, one oddly similar to his creator, and one who muses on or is questioned about the impact of writers in the world. And after all, what do authors do but create a sephirot of their own?
But I don’t want to make it sound as if Unholy Land floats along in some airy realm. Tidhar keeps things grounded by offering up alongside the more esoteric aspects of the book an old-fashioned, solid mystery — what happened to Tirosh’s niece — which, combined with a ticking bomb scenario wherein someone is trying to either break down the walls between worlds or destroy the worlds, keeps things gripping throughout. You read just as much to find out what happens as you do to explore the themes.
And then there is the language, which is vivid and precise and always adapted to the moment. As just one representative illustration (out of many to choose from), here’s an early segment as Tirosh’s plane takes off for Palestina:
The flight attendants went through the safety routine. The inside of the plane smelled of warm plastic, stale breath. There was a piece of gum struck to the underside of the food tray. The engines thrummed alive. Tirosh watched small grey figures through the window, moving with a clear but unguessed at purpose. He watched the runway move past and tensed as the plane began to accelerate, then took to the air with a bump. The airport grew wider before growing smaller. For some moments there was a flash of fields, the density of a city, the silver snail trail of cars on a highway. Then they entered the clouds, the world turned white and grey, and fine strands of fog drifted past outside the wind. Tirosh put his head back and closed his eyes.
Take a look at the progression here. We begin with the routine. Literally, the same old same old safety talk. We get the concrete smell of stale breath, the concrete mundane image of gum stuck to a tray. Dull language, dull syntax (sentences begin with The, The, There). Then we get “thrummed” and a bit of personification with the engines coming “alive.” Then we get mysterious “grey figures” doing who knows what. And once the plane has left the ground, the prose shifts from, well, prose to a more lyrical poetry. The alliteration of “flash of fields.” The near rhyme/echo of “density-city.” The alliteration, rhyme, and metaphor of “silver snail trail of cars.” The consonance and assonance of “white-fine-outside,” “strands-past,” “fine-fog-drifted,” the strings of D sounds. All of it ending with Tirosh, and us, in a world removed from reality, a drifting, untethered, non-distinct, blurry world of white and grey. That is an author in full control of his craft. And as noted, this isn’t an isolated example (I haven’t even touched upon the maddening teases of some of the other worlds: “the mechanical warriors under the banner of the Crimson Emperor in Jund Filastin,” “the fish-frog men abomination of Ash-Sham,” “the green swamp villages of Samaria where the Awful Ones live”).
I read Unholy Land straight through in one sitting, blowing off work, family, and the first few minutes of dinner to do so. And had I not finished I most likely would have just skipped dinner entire until I did. For such a short book — under 300 pages — Tidhar crams in a world (worlds) of thoughtfulness, suspense, imagery, and beautiful prose. Highly recommended.
Unholy Land delivers a twisty, mentally challenging story that addresses the multiverse, spirituality, exploitation and colonialism while looking, at least most of the time, like a thoughtful sly thriller. Bill did an excellent job off addressing the plot without creating spoilers (better than I would have done!), so I’ll talk about what held my interest in Lavie Tidhar’s book.
Tidhar bases the book on the concept of the sephirot. In this case, it is a net of alternate realities. The term comes from Kabbalah and is connected with the Tree of Life, which is a recurring symbol here. In Unholy Land, the sephirot realities are not hierarchical; they are lateral, and some people can move between them. When midlist pulp-fiction writer Lior Tavash takes a book tour trip to his ancestral homeland Palestina, he comes to the attention of several groups, all who relate to the sephirot differently.
I loved the way Tidhar uses tiny details to build the strangeness, as Tavash slips between worlds. The book glides you in and out of realities. It’s like walking down a decline so subtle that your calves don’t feel it, except you look around and you’re below sea level and don’t know how you got there. This is done through recollections of both Tavash and others, through the apparent confusion of others, even to things like statues that appear in town squares, and through Tavash’s own increasingly confusing memories of his own life.
The story has a solid spy thriller plot that kicks off when an old acquaintance of Lavash dies in Lavash’s hotel room, but along the way Tidhar explores contemporary issues without overloading the story. Palestina is a Jewish homeland created in East Africa; as with Israel, however, the political powers that created it expelled native peoples to create it. Now, decades later, those people live in camps along Palestina’s border. The citizens of Palestina somehow expected neighboring countries to absorb the refugees, and they have no interest in repatriating them. In fact, they are building a border wall to keep those people out (except for the ones who come across the border each day to work). Bloom, one point of view character, is charged with keeping the peace. He views the people who live in the camps with undisguised contempt and it is, perhaps, only at the end of Unholy Land that he faces the truth of his own role in society. The concept of walls and borders is an important one in the story, and thus it’s important that we discover that Bloom himself is from a different reality and was not born in Palestina.
The character of Nur accelerates the pace of the story. Against the proceduralism of Bloom’s story, Nur is a kickass action hero. And near the end of the book, the revelation of the cave brought a whole new level of strangeness to the story. I loved that.
I could talk about fathers and sons, about writers and realities; about metafiction, which is clearly an interest of Tidhar’s here. All of those things are handled well, but what stayed with me were the themes of walls and borders: what we let in, what we try to block out.
I haven’t read Central Station, but after reading Unholy Land, I will have to seek it out. Tidhar works out interesting aspects of human existence while creating a captivating story.