Friday, February 15, 2019

"Unholy Land" by Lavie Tidhar

This is a fun read! Alternate histories colliding, based around multiple potential states of the nation of Israel, with some clever meta-narrative and voice tricks going on. Quite rarely, for me, I found myself wishing it was longer.

Our protagonist, Lior Tirosh, is flying home to "Palestina", the Jewish nation established, in this timeline, in early 20th-century Africa (our Uganda). For reasons not immediately clear, Tirosh is experiencing a kind of slippage between worlds, half-remembering other histories. In Palestina, an old acquaintance turns up dead in his hotel room, catching Tirosh up in a conspiratorial tangle of nationalism, terrorism, and some kind of transdimensional plot.

I'm a sucker for a little bit of meta done right, and, if anything, I could do with more here. Tirosh has written or considered writing books with the same names and themes as Tidhar; one can't help but wonder if his very name, Lior, is a pun. That aside, one of my favorite elements of Unholy Land is the occasional jump through alternate worlds, where we catch glimpses of our history, Tidhar's fiction, and even stranger worlds—including scenes from Lovecraft's mythos.

I really love the way that Tidhar's play with multiple alternate histories allows him to punch up the "what if"—his nation of Palestina is tantalizingly close to our timeline, based on actual consideration of establishing a Jewish state in Uganda. Not content with the idea of thus preventing the Holocaust, Tidhar tosses around timelines that seem even worse, or at any rate radically different, and in all the worlds we visit focuses our attention on the xenophobic and even genocidal force that the Promised Land, no matter where situated, might prove to be. Investigator Bloom, the Palestinan intelligence agent following Tirosh, displays a callous violence that is explained, if not excused, in the terrifying reasoning that "they're not my people"; we're left with little doubt that the wall being constructed around Palestina is far more about ideological separation than any effective defense. It's a fairly biting critique of Israel's relationship with Palestine, albeit couched in a plausibly-deniable fantasy that would do the Strugatskys proud.

Bloom is one leg of a stylistic choice I found most intriguing, a braiding of three voices. Tirosh begins the book, as a third-person protagonist takes up most of it. However, shortly into the novel, a first-person narrator briefly intrudes, who we later discover to be Bloom. Finally, a third strand in the book is told in _second person_, always tricky, but it works here—culminating in a chapter where third-person Tirosh, first-person Bloom, and second-person Nur are all in the same place, and it all works. Nur's a great concept, if not fleshed out super well as a character—a kind of transdimensional agent specifically trained to handle to ontological nausea of shifting timelines.

Some aspects of the novel worked better than others for me—Tirosh's identification with pulp mystery novels didn't quite click, as we're not introduced to that idea convincingly enough to make the tropes work. I thought, by way of counterexample, of the way the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang slides from realism to an homage to the pulps it's inspired by. But here, Tirosh's sudden confrontation with murderous intrigue, working as a detective to find a missing girl, the out-of-left-field hookup with a bombshell heiress from his past—none of it quite felt earned. By contrast, the glimpses of alternate and fantastic worlds are wonderful—from the giraffes and Swahili-influenced Yiddish of an African Jewish city to the glimpses of megafauna in the forest. And I love the way that Tidhar makes exile, found-homeland, and outsider/insider questions resonate across dimensions.

Comparisons to Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union and MiƩville's The City and the City feel inevitable, which is no bad thing. Scene by scene, Tidhar's terribly engaging, and while this fairly short novel puts idea before character and plot I found it a delight to read.

Also, I think there's a Banksy here; blink and you'll miss it.

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