Review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

Mount To Be Read is tall but it is not unscalable and after prompting I caught up with a book I should have read in 2018. This was a feast and I was depriving myself of work that was full of things I enjoy.

I bemoaned the style of “X plus Y” book comparisons when reviewing Mexican Gothic, but the comparison of Unholy Land as “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union meets The City and The City” isn’t half bad. The book is more than that but as a guide to what you are getting into, it is a neat summary.

The story starts with a historical premise. In 1903, in the wake of further pogroms in Russia, the British government proposed to Theodor Herzel the possibility of establishing a Jewish homeland in Africa. The land to be colonised would have been within modern Kenya but adjoining Uganda (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uganda_Scheme ). The scheme did not eventuate but Tidhar takes the historical curiosity as a prompt for a what-if alternate history. He imagines a modern day Jewish state wedged between Kenya and Uganda with it’s own history and its own impact upon the rest of Twentieth Century history. That is just a starting point.

Adjacent to Alternative History as a sub-genre is the parallel worlds subgenre. The protagonist of the book, Lior Tirosh, is a German-Israeli detective story writer…or is he a German-Palestina detective story writer? His agent certainly thinks that Tirosh is journeying back home to Israel and yet Tirosh is on a flight to Africa.

Watching Tirosh is Bloom. High-up in the feared security services of Palestina (a state that live precariously within the volatile politics of Central Africa and has an oppressive relationship with the displaced people who originally lived in the region), Bloom has an uncanny overview of Tirosh’s actions — sliding between narrating Bloom’s own experiences and acting as a conventional omniscient narrator and later slipping into a second-person account of events. Bloom is violent, ruthless and oddly principled. Tidhar gives Bloom a kind of authorial voice (although Bloom’s main quest is to discover who is controlling events) yet Tirosh himself is a kind of alternate universe Tidhar (same initials, same profession, etc).

The addition of Nur, a Palestinian (in our sense) woman who is an agent of a quite different organisation adds a further dimension to the novel, that maintains an aesthetic not unlike LeCarre or perhaps Graham Greene while heading off into territory that is more like Michael Moorcock. I wouldn’t say it’s George Smiley meets Jerry Cornelius but there are hints of that.

Does that sound all to much? Add in dual themes of the role of science fiction as a means to discuss our world by imagining others along with questions about the nature of Israel as both an escape from the violence of European hegemony and an extension of that violence and Unholy Land becomes a surprisingly short book.

The literal dislocation Tirosh feels as he returns to a home that he remembers but which is at odds with his memories, demonstrates how science fiction concepts can capture genuine experiences. Tirosh lives between worlds in a science fiction sense but that dislocation is instantly recognisable to anybody who has lived for a protracted time abroad and travels back to the country of their childhood. Your memories jar as you recall what you experience but that recollection sits askew with how you think of birth-country in your new life elsewhere.

I was both entranced and deeply impressed by this book. It loves its ideas and there is a love of science fiction and pulp and weird ideas (a brief mention of a kind Jewish Tarzan visiting a Pellucidar knock-off, Shelley’s Ozymandis, lost Nazi soldier appearing in an African jungle…) and just a great big pile of everything and yet somehow in a neat package. It is very much a story that unfolds.

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