Reality and Memory Collide in Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land

In Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Unholy Land, a suspiciously similarly named pulp writer Liro Tirosh returns to his homeland of Palestina, a Jewish state on Lake Victoria between Kenya and Uganda. Tirosh has been out of the country, living in the Reich for years, in a Germany that never perpetrated a Holocaust. But his father, a larger than life national figure, is dying, so he returns. He presses through his dreams of Berlin in the plane above Palestina, and then through customs, where he is interrogated by the secret police, and then pushed out into the strange, bright streets of his homeland.

Revisiting one’s home town, one’s native country, after a long period always causes a sense of dislocation: the smell of things and the quality of the light tend to remain the same, but the buildings, the cars, often the very scale of the place feels off, forcing the memory to stutter and warp. Tirosh’s uneasy reintegration to the place of his origin seems the usual kind of dislocation—until he is visited by an old classmate, who barges into Tirosh’s hotel room and harangues him with his very presence. Tirosh knew him as young man, but now he’s run to the thin-haired middle age, both thicker and thinner than he remembers.

The guest drinks Tirosh’s hotel liquor and rants about how Tirosh’s niece, the daughter of his war hero brother, has gone missing amid her investigations of the folklore of the wall, The Wall, the wall—the one going up now to partition the Jewish state from the displaced African populations around it. And then, the old classmate dies, poisoned, and Tirosh is blamed for it, and arrested. Even though the secret police were watching Tirosh, they missed both his friend’s entrance into the hotel room, and his death.

Here, the slippages begin in earnest: Tirosh begins thinking of himself as a detective in one of his novels, interrogating old drunks and rich socialites as he plays the flatfoot. He answers his phone and speaks to his ex-wife, but the connection is staticky, and when he looks down, the phone is a glasses case again (there are no cell phones in Palestina). These are not the only holes in Tirosh’s reality: in a remembered conversation with the literary agent who is pressing him to write more marketable fiction, Tirosh snarls, “Why don’t I write a book about, I don’t know, Adolf Hitler as a private detective?” Which is, of course, precisely the plot of Lavie Tidhar’s novel A Man Lies Dreaming. You see: Tirosh, Tidhar. We are in that kind of novel, the kind that doubles back and dodges sideways. Keeping up provides its own kind of pleasure.

There are three point of view characters in Unholy Land. Tirosh’s portions are the only in the third person, but strangely remain the most intimate, lingering in the strange fallow between his life in Berlin and his return to Palestina, running forward and back through his young life, his exodus and return, and intimate in their close observation of his thoughts and feelings. Conversely, the first person narrator, Bloom, a member of the secret police, is the most impersonal. Bloom is a terrible person, filled up with his own righteousness and fully believing in the structural and institutional cruelties he perpetrates.

The final sections are narrated in second person, and follow Nur Al-Hussaini, who is a sort of detective herself, sent to Palestina to shadow Tirosh (and Bloom, and any others influencing the ouroboros of the overt plot.) At times, the various points of view meet up, and the result is an altogether dizzying and masterful use of narrative voice. The clashing narrative perspectives produce something like parallax—looking out of one eye, and then the other, and then both focused together on a third point. Which is the operative metaphor of Unholy Land: one of partition and perspective, the same thing seen over and over and over again through different eyes.

I believe there are a number of hat tips in this novel to China Miéville’s The City & the City, which is about two central European cities superimposed onto one another, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, even down to rooms in the same domicile. The people of Bresźel and Ul Qoma unsee one another when they pass on the street, and any perforation of the lines between the two cities, even sightlines, results in harsh consequences. It is not quite clear if the separation between the cities is mystical or cultural, or if the difference would matter.

The Palestina of Unholy Land does not have this kind of cross-hatching, exactly, but the metaphor of partition, separation, and division operates throughout the narrative. This Jewish state in Africa is building a wall between the African people who were Palestina’s original occupants and the Jewish people who have resided in Palestina for several generations. Both, certainly, have rights of residence, and birthright, and colonization, and all the other things nations use to decide and mark citizenship. Still, there are suicide bombers on buses, unrest in the streets, and resistances on both sides of the wall.

The people of Palestina are known as Palestinians, which surprised me every time I came upon the word, this inversion of the state of things in my reality. The partition between the real Israel and Palestine is called a “separation barrier” by the Israelis, and an “apartheid wall” by the Palestinians. It is the same thing seen by two very different points of view, occupying the same space (more or less, depending on granularity): a physical manifestation of both difference and sameness. Unholy Land plays in the strange, uncomfortable DMZ between the national founding myth and the uninterrogated childhood, between the person who leaves the homeland and the one who returns.

Unholy Land is available now.

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