Power, corruption and lies

6 months ago 91

The press release for Maror – the first instalment of Lavie Tidhar’s epic trilogy about Israel’s criminal underbelly, which first appeared last year in hardback – includes a letter from the author introducing the book, complete with two extraordinary admissions. Previously known as the author of ambitious SFF sagas, Tidhar – who writes in English – confesses that his aspirations are now on a different scale:

The truth is, every book I’ve written has been nominated for awards and most won some … The problem is, these novels all used genre to do it, that dirty word, and the awards they got were mostly genre awards. The people who read them liked the elves and the aliens more than the politics and the ugliness … So I took everything I cared about … and I poured them across forty years of real history and real people in a story that ranges from 1970s Israel and the hunt for a real-life killer to the horrible civil war in Lebanon and to the Colombian cartels of the 1980s … I want a Booker, and they don’t give you one of those for a book about elves (not even to Kazuo Ishiguro).

Tidhar goes on to trash his pre-eminent literary forebears: “It is a book that takes a bat to Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, the grand old men of Israeli fiction, for making lies seem like truth”. (The nature of their “lies” is never explained, but presumably it has something to do with those authors’ focus on Israel’s non-criminal world.) What to make of this chutzpah?

Maror (Hebrew for the bitter herbs eaten at the Passover Seder) centres on the tussle between the Torah- and poetry-quoting Cohen, a nefarious chief inspector in the Israeli police force, and his nemesis Rubenstein, a small-time crook turned mafia boss. When we meet Cohen in 2003, he is “tall, trim, in his late fifties maybe. Grey eyes, as cold as the sea … Too smart, anyway, to be a policeman”. In tone and style we are straight into the wised-up, hardboiled, generic world of a noir thriller. The story opens with a Tel Aviv car bomb – an attempt to snuff out Rubenstein that instead kills children walking to school. Cohen’s junior, Avi Sagi, is sent to investigate. A vacuous, coke-snorting ball-buster, he is precisely the blunt instrument the case needs.

What stands out in the first half of Maror isn’t the Tarantino-style violence but the vivid picture of Tel Aviv, with its muscle bars, card joints and bustling Jaffa flea market: “A city of beaches and white walled homes. Of freshly squeezed orange juice and lamb fat on the grill. Of the movie theatres … coffee houses and discotheques”. In a later section set in 1994, featuring the retired gangster Benny, Tidhar seems eager to bottle the city’s ess nce: “bus fumes and grill smoke and cigarettes and piss, the usual Tel Aviv air”. Between these chapters the book plunges us back into the early 1970s, with Cohen on the trail of a serial killer, and a forced confession that leads to the conviction of an innocent man. We then jump to 1977 and the book’s most intriguing episode, in which the investigative journalist Sylvie Gold explores corrupt Israeli politicians and dodgy land deals in the West Bank.

Throughout Maror the defining events of recent Israeli history play out against the novel’s richly imagined underworld. In the famous Jerusalem bar Fink’s, Sylvie encounters the then prime minister, Golda Meir, coughing from the cancer that will end her life. On a mission to smuggle hashish out of Lebanon, Benny is kidnapped in Beirut as the 1982 conflict explodes. In 1995 we encounter the young Avi returning from the notorious Arad music festival at which three teenagers were crushed to death by a falling gate, to find that the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has just been assassinated on the Kings of Israel Square: “They drove into Tel Aviv and saw a city in shock”. And, in the Noughties Tidhar’s intricately plotted story closes with the Second Intifada (“dead kids in Gaza and suicide bombs”) and Cohen victorious as he exacts his revenge on his loose-cannon deputy, who has failed in his duty to the state. The book ends with Cohen’s deathless words: “I love this country”.

For all its verve and historical contextMaror lacks a certain literary finesse. The characterization is largely functional, as is some of the prose (“He pulled on a shirt. Got dressed. Put on his gun”), while much of the incidental detail is off-the-shelf: characters drink two cups of coffee or snort two lines of cocaine, “one after another”; in the aftermath of every fight the victor has to throw up. In Adama Tidhar raises his game. While the earlier book felt fragmentary, introducing a new set of characters every fifty pages, the second novel gains coherence through its focus on different generations of the same family. The ties of blood are tighter, the stakes higher. On every page we feel we’re among real, breathing people.

Beginning in Miami in 2009, a year after Maror left off, the action quickly reels back twenty years to Lior’s reappearance at the Trashim kibbutz, revealing the story of his Hungarian grandmother, Ruth. Both Lior and Ruth made brief appearances in the first book, but here we reach deep into their histories and the communal life that moulded them. Lior has arrived for his friend Danny’s funeral, but he is more than a mere mourner. He is obsessed with Danny’s widow and sceptical that his buddy committed suicide. Before long he has unearthed a drug-smuggling operation that spills across the porous Lebanese border, sanctioned by the army.

We are then taken back to 1946, and Ruth’s arrival at a kibbutz, smuggling guns in her vegetable delivery truck at a time when Palestine is still under British rule. The juxtaposition with the solicitous matriarch we’ve just met is striking. If Adama has a heroine it is the hard-nosed, Luger-packing Ruth. When the Second World War broke out, eighteen-year-old Ruth left Hungary for Palestine; soon after her family was betrayed to the Nazis, only her sister Shoshana surviving the Holocaust. Shoshana ends up in a Bavarian transit camp and eventually makes aliyah to join her sister.

Tidhar is sensitive to the region’s disputed history, which has erupted this month with such terrible violence. The nearest the novel comes to a partisan tale of nation-building is in the story of Ruth’s lover, Dov, who in 1948 takes part in the notorious Operation Broomstick in Galilee, razing Arab villages in a brutal land grab: “It was the sort of necessary evil that was, well, necessary”, Dov later reflects. Repulsed by the rape and murder of four Arab women, Dov gives chase to the perpetrators and has an unlikely encounter with a wild bear, like “some demon conjured out of the stories in the Talmud”. He faces it down, then drinks from a stream with his hands, “like one of David’s warriors who would not put their face in the water but watched out for attack”. It is an ambiguous scene and one wonders how allegorically it is intended. “Dov” is Yiddish for “bear” – is he confronting his true self? Either way we are now firmly out of genre fiction and in the realm of something more nuanced and overtly political. In Hebrew “adama” means “earth” or “soil”, and its middle syllable, “dam”, means “blood”. As Shoshana’s Hebrew teacher says: ‘There is no a-d-a-m-a without d-a-m”.

“Will they give me a Booker for it?”, the author signs off his letter accompanying Maror. “Hell, no. I grew up on a kibbutz and have no idea even how to wear a tie.” Like his recent fiction, he has a winning humanity and sense of humour. While comparisons to James Ellroy and (the Booker prize-winning) Marlon James are valid, this project most closely recalls David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy (2007–21), which sought to explore gangsterism and political corruption against the backdrop of a nation undergoing rapid change and trauma. Of Peace’s three books, the final one, Tokyo Redux (2021), is the most memorable and accomplished. One hopes that Lavie Tidhar will emulate Peace in this respect when he completes his compelling, unflinching roman-fleuve.

Jude Cook teaches Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. His second novel is Jacob’s Advice, 2020

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