I didn’t know until after I’d finished Eshkol Nevo’s engrossing and frustrating novel Neuland that Nevo (b. 1971—the older I get the more I want to know writers’ ages) is the grandson of Israel’s third Prime Minister. I can imagine readers for whom this biographical fact accounts for certain qualities of the book, what we might call its status as a “condition of Israel” novel. But what matters for me about this information is the light it sheds on my position as a reader of this book, namely, one of ignorance.
Consider the title. I knew, going in, that it references a book I haven’t read, Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel and founding text of Zionism Altneuland (1902), Old New Land, or, in the words of its first Hebrew translator, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow, Tel Aviv. (One of my fascinations with Israel is the way a literary and intellectual tradition has so clearly and powerfully incorporated itself into the political and material fabric of the emerging state: so, for example, its self-created metropolis takes its name from a novel.) I knew, in other words, what I didn’t know, and I can only wonder what it would be like to read Nevo’s book knowing Herzl’s.
Nor did I know anything about Nevo himself. Cursory online research tells me he’s an important Israeli writer, translated into many languages, a mentor to many younger writers, the recipient of various prestigious prizes. Where he fits in relation to other Israeli writers, or the Israeli literary scene as a whole, however, is a mystery to me. (Does anyone have ideas about that, or suggestions for what Israeli literature I should read next, beyond Appelfeld, Oz, Grossman & Yehoshua, with whom I have at least glancing familiarity? Names of women writers would be especially welcome.)
But even though I read this book somewhat in the dark, I took a lot from it. Neuland is a mixed bag, to be sure: it attempts too much, its various strands don’t work equally well, hidden inside it is a different, maybe more interesting book, it’s at once too long and too short. But it’s well worth reading: ambitious, thought-provoking, engaging.
In 2006, in the weeks before and during the Second Lebanon War, Dori Peleg travels to South America to search for his father, Manny, who has disappeared after leaving increasingly erratic and enigmatic email messages to his children. Manny, a hero of the Yom Kippur war and successful management consultant, has taken this unusual journey—he is known, to his family, his colleagues, and indeed to all of Israel, where he is a public personality, as a master of controlled rationality—following the death of his wife.
Dori, escaping difficulties of his own (a wife he feels disrespected by and whom he no longer understands, a small child about whose developmental peculiarities he is overly protective), hires an Ecuadoran who specializes in tracking down Westerners (usually young adults) who have gone off the rails, in one way or another, in Central and South America.
Don Alfonso is one of the book’s missteps, more a way to comment on the foibles of Israelis than a fully developed character, and the back-story introduced late in the text to explain his particular interest in Dori’s search is unconvincing, just as his sexism, fatalism, and scorn for Western rectitude are uncomfortably clichéd.
A much stronger character is Inbar Benbenisti, an Israeli who has fled to South America after an unsuccessful visit to her mother, Hana, who, to Inbar’s dismay, even fury, lives in Berlin with a German. At the airport awaiting her flight back to Israel, Inbar impulsively changes her ticket to the next available flight, to Peru. The sudden flight to the Andes has its roots in traumas both professional (a caller to the therapy talk radio show she produces is shot by her son after the on-air psychologist has urged her to cut ties with the boy) and personal (her younger brother killed himself in murky circumstances during his Army service). Inbar lives with Eitan, a loving soul who designs lighting fixtures. (It says something about the novel’s preference for the irrational over the rational that the man who sheds light for a living should have such a small role.) Dori and Inbar meet cute in Peru; she joins him in his search, and the two enter into a protracted (and smoldering) not-quite-relationship.
The novel’s narrative form fuels our desire that they get together, even as it keeps us sympathetic to the partners and families they’ve left behind, by switching perspective amongst these and the other characters in separate sections. The same event is focalized, for example, first through Dori, then Inbar, and then Alfonso. A separate narrative strand is centered on Inbar’s grandmother, Lily, an early Zionist who arrives by boat in Palestine in 1939 just as the Germans overrun her native Poland.
Lily’s sections, sensitively and vividly written (a whole book could have been made of them, a good book, though maybe a less visionary one, almost certainly the book an Anglo-American writer would have written these days, with the current mania for historical fiction) provide the historical context for the idea of homeland that is Nevo’s real subject, one he both extols and chafes against. That is, even as Nevo seems to think that what has become of the Zionist experiment is problematic and flawed, he never repudiates the experiment itself, he neither devalues the experience of the early pioneers nor upholds them as heroes.
The journey to Palestine and the creation of a new Zion is the historical road taken (yes, the characters discuss Frost’s poem—subtlety isn’t really Nevo’s thing) to the one not taken, at least by the characters in this book, the road proposed by the nineteenth-century philanthropist Baron Maurice von Hirsch who founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 to enable mass emigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, by creating agricultural cooperatives in the Americas, particularly Argentina. (At one point, 200,000 Jews lived on such cooperatives in Argentina alone.) Nevo reminds us, but wisely does not recreate, the famous meeting between Herzl and Hirsch in 1895, when the former attempted to convince the latter that the Jewish question required a political solution, that is, a Jewish homeland; Hirsch dismissed him out of hand.
Manny, overwhelmed by his wartime traumas in the absence of his wife’s soothing presence, decides to fuse the two men’s dreams after himself having a hallucinatory-induced vision. On the place where Hirsch’s emigrants first made a life for themselves, he will found a new community that will soothe the psychic wounds of Herzl’s descendents. This is the Neuland of the title, at which Dori and Inbar arrive after a journey that owes much to Heart of Darkness, with Manny as Kurtz. Manny’s utopian community is at once the most interesting and most disappointing part of the book. It takes us many hundreds of pages to reach Neuland’s gates (which are inscribed in Hebrew, Spanish, and English with the words “Man, You are my brother.”) But then we spend only a short time there; we’re never sure what the place is all about. Manny defines it as “a communal therapeutic space based on the principles of Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl” and the idea that there is a psychic dimension to the Zionist experience that its ‘actual,” that is, socio-political unfolding has repeatedly neglected is compelling and timely. (A more sophisticated version of this claim can be found in the work of Jacqueline Rose.)
Too bad Nevo doesn’t develop the workings and contradictions of the utopian community. (Reading Neuland I was seized by a strong desire to reread Norman Rush’s Mating, the best novel about utopias that I know, one of the best novels period.) Is Manny a charlatan? The business guru in him hasn’t been entirely displaced by the spiritual one: he’s capitalizing on the so-called Hummus Trail, the journeys made by young Israelis after their army service all over the world, especially South America. For Manny, these young people, who are the primary settlers/inhabitants of Neuland, are damaged in a way that a trek in the Andes cannot repair. He argues that for the “source land” (the name Neulanders use to refer to Israel) to be remade, for Zion to be psychologically healed, the work of redefining how to live in community must happen in an entirely different place.
The novel, then, is a dialogue about the differences between Zionism and diasporism as ways of thinking about Jewish identity. This is of course a discussion, even dispute with a long history: to take only the most recent, disappointing instance, consider the recent accusations made by the Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua to the Jewish American writer Nicole Krauss that there can be no authentic Jewish life in the diaspora, an affront that matched a comment made that very same week to me by our Israeli tour guide. It’s interesting that Nevo’s novel doesn’t seem to countenance the possibility of the diaspora. Herzl still trumps Hirsch in that the project of Neuland is a project that renovates rather than dismantles Zionism. You might even get a sense from the novel that Hirsch’s plan was a failure. His cooperatives no longer exist, to be sure, but Jewish life remains robust in Argentina (though admittedly less so since the years of the junta in the 1970s and 80s.) I’ve no idea what Nevo’s personal ideas on Jewish life in the diaspora might be, and I can’t imagine he’d be hectoring and bullying the way Yehoshua was, but the absence of diasporic life in the novel is only the more strongly felt by the presence of a particularly weak and confusing plot strand, about the idea of the Wandering Jew (the subject of Inbar’s mother’s dissertation) who is momentarily incarnated in one of the young people at Neuland.
The point of Neuland is neither to give up on Zionism nor to export it elsewhere nor to imagine other alternatives to it. The point is to create a para-Zionism to revitalize the existing one. That’s Manny’s dream, at any rate. I can’t quite tell if it’s Nevo’s. Manny is appealing but also faintly ridiculous. Dori, for one, is clear in his response: his father has gone off the deep end and abandoned him, even though that abandonment paradoxically takes the form of recognition in a way it never did in Dori’s childhood. Dori is disgusted when, with the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, Manny refuses to leave the children of Neuland for his children in Israel. The novel seems to share that disgust—it never returns to Neuland, nor do Dori and Inbar comment or reflect on it in the novel’s brief denouement, back in Israel. They are too preoccupied with whether they will leave their families for each other.
I can’t decide how much of the cursoriness of the novel’s treatment of Neuland is a flaw of the novel’s construction or a critique of the place itself, and perhaps Israel, too. We learn, for example, that some Lebanese have arrived at Neuland, and the community has yet to decide whether to allow them to stay. (Neither has it ruled yet on the request by some of its religious members that the dining hall be koshered.) These dilemmas of course reflect tensions in the existing state of Israel as it struggles to reconcile its multi-ethnic aspects with its desire to be a Jewish homeland. Nevo might be criticizing Israel for failing to resolve these tensions. But in practice it feels more like something he just doesn’t want to get into.
What does he want to get into? The story of Inbar and Dori’s relationship, I think. But of course that is a political story, too. Inbar’s grandmother, Lily, the Zionist, had a lover on the ship to Palestine. Her lover, a klezmer musician named Pima, turns out to be Manny’s father and Dori’s grandfather (though the characters haven’t figured that out yet). Inbar and Dori could have been siblings. Instead they seem fated to take the road their grandparents never did and become a couple. It makes no sense, in the world of this book especially, to separate the personal from the political. But sometimes I think Neuland is seduced not by the idea of political utopias, but by the idea of personal ones: the idea that people can start all over again, and that Israeli people, in particular, can relate to others without the burdensome, even damaging vicissitudes their history has submitted them to.
Neuland has given me a lot to think about. In a way, it’s followed me about. I bought it in the gift shop at Yad Vashem. Then, a day after we’d stumbled across the balcony of the hotel in Basel where the famous photo of a brooding and bearded Herzl was taken at the Fifth International Zioist Congress in 1901, a photo displayed prominently at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, I opened up a Swiss newspaper to find this perceptive review. The reviewer criticizes the novel’s tone, its inability to clearly reconcile fantastical elements with realistic ones. (I haven’t even mentioned Nessia, a character created by Inbar in her diary but who intervenes in the world of the novel.) I agree with the criticism, but I think the difficulty is more instructive than it is a sign of inability. Perhaps the failure to integrate fantasy and reality, dream and actuality, without simply subordinating the first to the second, is the tragedy of Israel.