Book review: Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

(cover image courtesy Tachyon Publications)

We live in mysteriously varied worlds.

That’s right – worlds.

When Disney opined that’s a small world after all, they likely weren’t taking into account the theory of the multiverse which posits that the Earth we know and if not love, somewhat tolerate, is just one of many multiple versions, each sitting cheeky-by-jowl and containing slightly or vastly different versions of the people, biosphere and culture with which we are familiar.

Countless movies, TV shows and books have made use of the endless narrative possibilities of this intriguing idea, the latest shining example being Unholy Land by celebrated author Lavie Tidhar which begins as one man’s introspective journey back to the country of his birth before morphing into a thrilling romp across multiple universes.

Tidhar shows a supreme mastery of the idea of alternate universes from the get-go, giving not only the obvious exploration of worlds that are stunningly the same as ours but just different enough to send people into a uncanny valley of unease.

Certainly the protagonist of Unholy Land, Lior Tirosh, finds himself distinctly unsettled when a simple trip home – it’s not simple really with all kinds of emotional complications besetting it but compared to what follows, it is elegantly simple enough – becomes far, far more, somewhere between his home of Berlin, where he writes moderately successfully pulpy detective novels, and his family home in the African country of Palestina.

“Long yellow beaches and grey gulls crying high, and the white buildings rising against the startling blue of the sky. I remembered the silent airships floating, serenely, above the newly built Temple on the Mount. Remembered the serenity of the old new lands, of Judea, Samara and Gaza; hills of cyclamen and poppies in dazzling pinks and reds, as far as the eye could see, and new cities, dazzling with electric light, along the shores of the Mediterranean. My Altneuland. Sometimes it seemed a dream to me, only a dream. It was hard to be sure if it had ever been real.” (P. 37)

The existence of Torish’s homeland is one of the most exciting elements of a book brimming with brilliantly-realised fantastical ideas (which sit beautifully it should be added along some raw and aching humanity).

It is not simply that the Jewish homeland of Palestina, which borders modern Uganda, exists at all, a nod to a period in history when the Zionist Congress seriously considered, though didn’t vote for, establishing a homeland anywhere they could get one. (In this alternate Earth, there is no Israel nor was there a Holocaust with the Jews of Europe decamping en masses to East Africa in the early twentieth century and avoiding Hitler’s insidiously evil “Final Solution”.)

It is that Tirosh, who is the son of the much-lauded military hero of Palestina, General Tirosh, doesn’t quite feel at home in a place where, family issues aside, he should feel entirely comfortable.

As he settles back into life in a country which is beset by bombings and unrest by the dispossessed tribal people of the area, and which is, in response, building a wall to keep them out of the capital Ararat City, and he realises he is being tracked and fingered for a series of murders he didn’t commit, that sense of raw unease grows.

Adding fuel to the existential fire is the fact that Tirosh remembers all kinds of events, in his dreams and sometimes while awake, that couldn’t possibly have taken place in this reality; he discounts them, however, as the manifestations of a stressed psyche and nothing more, but the disquiet remains and grows, unwilling to be banished as fevered fantasies and nothing more.

Lavie Tidhar (image courtesy isfdb)

It is hard to pretend though that everything is normal when a childhood friend dies in his hotel room just as he has checked in and when a state security officer by the name of Bloom seems to dog his every step.

Add in the fact that a trans-dimensional agent is stalking Tirosh too, something of which he remains blissfully unaware for much of the novel and you have a protagonist who is quickly going to face up to some hard and unpalatable truths.

Unholy Land is such a compelling read because at every step on Tirosh’s ever more disquieting journey from normal to anything but – in one memorable scene, he receives a call on the bus from his agent Elsa, earning him looks from shocked and disapproving fellow passengers who acts as if speaking into his mobile phone is an act of frightening or demented sorcery – Tidhar weaves in some salient musings on the history of the Jewish people, both good and bad aspects but also what can happen to people when their world goes off kilter just enough for it to feel unnervingly not normal.

It is this exploration of personal and collective pain, Tirosh’s and that of the wider Jewish nation, that infuses the novel with an emotional substance and an intellectual understanding that added vigorous narrative weight to what is by any measure a thrillingly readable tale.

As we bear witness to Tirosh’s own sense of existential unease and sense of personal dislocation, just enough off centre for him to notice but not enough for him to be able embrace it as a quantifiable, dealable issue, we also are testament to the seemingly unceasing quest of the Jewish people to find a place of peace and security in the world.

“The transition from one world to the next is subtle when one is in the air. The sky remains the same sky. The clouds continue to reflect back at you your own preoccupations, like a set of Rorschach blots. It is only when you land that the world resolves in its little differences, the arrival on a new and unfamiliar shore magnified by tiny wrongnesses; the worlds are much the same, but the details differ.” (P. 151)

Tidhar is honest enough to admit to the fact that in seeking this hallowed, safe place in a world that often seems inimically opposed to their existence, the Jewish people have no always gotten everything right.

Unholy Land brings this rumination on the sins or otherwise of the modern Jewish nation into clear and unambiguous view by examining its history, both that of this world and many others, but also by using Tirosh as the lens through which a great many other things are put under the microscope.

At its heart, Unholy Land works because at the heart of all its big ideas on nationhood, history, the Jewish people and the concept of a multiplicity of alternate worlds, sits a humanity so authentic and accessible that any of us could see ourselves as Tirosh and understand what the struggle with a myriad of mistakes and false steps that mark all but the most perfect of lives (and really, does a mythical beast even exist?) might feel like.

It is the gravity and truth of Tirosh’s troubled humanity, of his journey from an imperfect but livable sense of self to one fractured by a mass of microscopic but noticeable changes that together add up to an unmissable moment of reckoning, that makes Unholy Land such an enthralling read.

The idea of worlds beyond our own mixing in with ours is exciting enough, and Tidhar makes the most of the idea of realities coming together in a messy and potentially life-ending melange, but he adds masterfully to this intriguing idea by helping us to understand what it means to someone, and even for a people, to lose their existential anchor and whether there is any kind of easy way to come back from it.

There are no easy answers, and even though there is a resolution of sorts and answers given, Unholy Land doesn’t pretend these tied-up-with-a-bow solutions exist leaving us with a flawed protagonist, uncertain truths and partly inconclusive realities, the kind which you suspect will hold true in this or any other alternate universe.

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