In the early 1900s, the Sixth Zionist Congress authorized an expedition to British East Africa to determine its suitability as a Jewish homeland. The British Government had offered to settle Jews in what is now Kenya, and with the increasing number of pogroms in Czarist Russia, the Zionists wanted to investigate every possibility for a Jewish state. The author of the expedition’s report, though, was biased against any option but a return to the Holy Land, and he unsurprisingly found the land unsuitable as a Jewish homeland. Thus in our time the “Uganda Plan” became a historical footnote, a minor thread in the grand tapestry of European politics. But in another timeline…
Lior Tirosh, hack mystery writer and disappointment to his war-hero father, is returning to his homeland—Palestina, the Jewish homeland wedged between Kenya and Uganda. But this is not the idyllic land he remembers from his youth; the government is building an impenetrable border wall to control the flow of African refugees and terrorist suicide bombers. Unrest roils in Ararat City’s shadowed streets. The bumbling Tirosh finds himself embroiled in a larger conspiracy, with his niece missing and one of his childhood friends found dead in his hotel room. Fancying himself like a character in one of his novels, Tirosh starts hunting for clues… and finds himself between the transient borders of history, slipping back and forth between alternate realities.
As a history buff, I’m enthralled by this tidbit of history Tidhar’s novel has introduced me to. It draws obvious similarities to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but Tidhar’s choice is much more Philip K. Dickian, turning a historical oddity into an ingenious flight of fancy, where a multitude of realities are just the shadowed daydreams of one another. The concept of a Jewish homeland set amid a savanna full of giraffes and elephants seems so surreal to me, a homeland that ended up saving most European Jews from the Holocaust. Yet Tidhar takes the idea and uses it to make poignant allusions to modern society: history, he posits, is cyclical, alternate timelines be damned. The lack of a Holocaust changes little: instead of Arab-Israeli Wars, there are African-Israeli Wars and a displaced population of native Kenyans; Palestina’s border wall is a direct parallel to the the West Bank Barrier Wall, and suggests the proposed Mexican Border Wall here in the US.
Even then, the Jewish homeland in Africa isn’t the strangest part of the novel; Tidhar doesn’t just toy with history, he dives through the now-porous borders between space and time. The way Tirosh (and other characters) slip between competing realities and worlds reminds me of Mieville’s The City & The City and Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, two other novels that examine where political borders meet metaphysical ones. In many ways Unholy Land is the natural evolution for the series of pulpy metafictional alternate-history detective novels Tidhar has been writing since Osama. Heck, he even alludes to Tirosh having written that novel, and another one titled Central Station; that’s the type of metafictional panache I associate with Tidhar, the subtle (and tongue-in-cheek) implication that Lior Tirosh is the Palestina reality’s version of Lavie Tidhar.
Tidhar is certainly not a simple hack like Tirosh; coming hot on the heels of his award-winning Central Station, Unholy Land is no slouch. The writing is just as sharp, but it trades Central Station’s more relaxed tone—something of a family drama set in futuristic melting-pot Tel Aviv filled with rusted futurism and the scent of orange groves—for something more befitting an alternate reality noir. The narrative is more puzzle-like, the intricate and tightly-knotted plot centered on Tirosh’s investigation before expanding to include a pair of other time travelers and their motivations. (An interesting note, Tirosh’s story is told in the normal third person, while the others are in the first-person and second person, making each narrator instantly identifiable.). Central Station and Unholy Land take older SF genre elements and filter them through modern literary sensibilities; both are vividly written, and both are wondrous science fiction visions, but beyond that they are unique masterpieces.
Unholy Land is a gem of modern science fiction. The elements and themes used in its construction are uncommon but not unique, which should be obvious since I just compared it to a half-dozen other novels. And yet it’s that rarest of books, the kind of novel that takes those elements and transcends them through the strength of its writing and ambition of its story. I find myself digesting its implications and pondering its many layers weeks after I finished reading it. Lavie Tidhar takes those building blocks and weaves a spellbinding story that’s both gripping and quite unlike anything else being published today. I’ve long been convinced of Tidhar’s genius, and Unholy Land just further cements that in my brain. What Tidhar writes today is where science fiction will go tomorrow. Unholy Land is a stunning achievement, a masterful and thought-provoking novel, and I look forward to seeing where Tidhar goes from here.
Title: Unholy Land
Author: Lavie Tidhar
First Published Date: 6 November 2018
What I Read: ebook (Tachyon Publications)
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via publisher)
MSRP: $15.95 pb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1616963042 / B07D3X2P9Q