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The quest for Jewish nationhood is entwined with the exercise of imagination. Theodor Herzl’s best-known words, “If you will it, it is no dream” (or, translated more accurately from the original German, “it is no fairy tale”) attest to the nature of Zionism as the fulfillment of a fantasy.
And we tend to forget that those words first appeared in the frontispiece of Herzl’s 1902 impassioned novel, “Old New Land,” in which travelers encounter a fictitious utopian Jewish state. That Herzl was himself a writer of speculative fiction sat in my mind as I enjoyed two recently released books of Israeli science fiction.
The counterfactual novel, which imagines circumstances at odds with history, is an increasingly popular literary subgenre. And recent years have seen several such works depicting the realization of plans for Jewish nationhood that never materialized historically. Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” Simone Zelich’s “Judenstaat” and Nava Semel’s “Isra Isle” concoct Jewish homelands in Alaska, East Germany and upstate New York, respectively.
Lavie Tidhar’s “Unholy Land” is the most recent addition to this body of alternative histories, and it’s a very ambitious work.
One plan for Jewish independence that gained strength at the turn of the 20th century was a proposal to develop a Jewish homeland in eastern Africa, then under British control. The project had the support of some prominent Zionist leaders, including Herzl, and, following a vote at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1903, an expedition was sent to explore its possibilities. Ultimately, the idea was scuttled, but “Unholy Land” depicts a world in which this plan came to fruition. The novel is set in the African state of Palestina, neighboring Uganda and Kenya, many years after its founding.
What is immediately striking about the nation of Palestina is that many of its problems are easily recognizable from contemporary Israeli challenges: The military is ubiquitous, and a wall is being erected to protect the nation from insurgent attacks by displaced indigenous Africans.
And the novel’s central character, expatriate pulp novelist Lior Tirosh, lands right into the mess: Returning to his native Palestina after many years abroad to visit his ailing father, a prominent general, he quickly becomes a witness to a suicide bombing, a suspect in a murder and the target of assassins.
At one level, the novel functions as a sort of hard-boiled thriller, but Tidhar, raised on a kibbutz and now living in Britain and writing in English, is no run-of-the-mill novelist. Rather, he is a significant figure in today’s science fiction scene, and this dimension infuses the novel. The borders in question in Palestina turn out to be not only ones dividing territories, but ones separating different spheres of reality. It gets complicated, and the unconventional storytelling (the narrative is in the first, second and third person) can sometimes make it difficult to assess what’s happening. But the bumpy ride is quite worthwhile.
Another rewarding read is “Zion’s Fiction” — the first major collection of Israeli science fiction and fantasy literature. The anthology is subtitled “A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature.”
Because science fiction (as opposed to “Zion’s Fiction”) is a genre that I’ve never fully warmed to, it may not be shocking that the part of the book that most excited me was its lengthy introduction. But this is because it’s an outstanding essay that offers an astute cultural analysis explaining why Israel has long welcomed realist literature and turned a cold shoulder to science fiction.
The editors hold that in the decades surrounding 1948, nation-building was felt to be an all-encompassing project, and the Labor Zionists who dominated Israel’s political culture cast a disapproving eye on literary genres they perceived as diverting from that effort. And the lack of publishing opportunities among the nation’s few publishing outlets effectively enforced this perspective.
Additionally, in a country that has often felt the possibility of its destruction at hand, the apocalyptic scenarios that are among the staples of speculative fiction were particularly unwelcome. Circumstances changed in the 1970s, and an active subculture of science fiction writers and readers emerged, yielding the fruits collected in this anthology.
The stories collected in “Zion’s Fiction” are wide-ranging. Some introduce supernatural elements into contemporary Israeli life. Examples include Rotem Baruchin‘s “In the Mirror,” in which a young woman has the ability to undo past mistakes by smashing an inherited mirror (at great personal cost), and Elana Gomel’s “Death in Jerusalem,” about a woman who marries death (to be specific, death by gunfire).
Some of the stories envision Israel far in the future, such as Tidhar’s “The Smell of Orange Groves,” a story taken from his book “Central Station” and set in Tel Aviv.
And some are entirely universal, without references to Israel. For example, Gail Hareven’s “The Slows” imagines a future in which childhood has been eliminated through technology, and the isolated groups that still nurse their young and opt for a lengthy period of maturation are treated as savages.
The anthology’s longest piece is popular author Savyon Liebrecht’s “A Good Place for the Night,” in which a small group of survivors of a vast cataclysm make their way into the future. It’s a haunting fable, with loud echoes of the Holocaust.
It’s a satisfying anthology, and I hope that its appeal will extend beyond science-fiction devotees.