by Lavie Tidhar
Head of Zeus, £20
Reviewed by Jenni Frazer
Lavie Tidhar’s Maror was one of the sensational novels of 2022, a violent rollercoaster and drug-fuelled ride into Israel’s history, with a particular focus on the Lebanon war of 1983.
Now, in Adama, Tidhar reaches even further back, first to the death camps of Europe and then to the Displaced Persons camps, where the survivors of the Nazi genocide limped their way, some eagerly, some extremely unwillingly, to pre-state Palestine.
As in Maror, Tidhar writes in a spare, choppy style, not always terribly elegant, but the style suits the subject: the early years of the Jewish state were not terribly elegant, either.
Adama means land, and as a Hebrew teacher tells one of the characters, “there is no land without blood — no adama without dam”.
Dam is the Hebrew word for blood.
And there is plenty of blood soaking the pages of this book. No sooner do we get to know a character than he or she is summarily dispatched into the world to come, usually with violence and vengeance.
One prominent exception is Ruth. Separated during the Holocaust from her Hungarian Jewish family, Ruth makes it to Palestine and first becomes a gun-runner for one of the pre-state underground organisations, and then a mainstay of a secular kibbutz.
As the book proceeds, Ruth gradually transforms from a somewhat naive young Zionist to a wise old kibbutz elder who still can strip a gun in minutes. Her children and grandchildren each graduate from the kibbutz with different ambitions, changing as Israeli society and the kibbutz movement itself changes.
In Maror, Tidhar played some entertaining games with real-life characters and situations, and he does the same in Adama, featuring the Hollywood director Edward Dymytrk making a film on the kibbutz in 1952.
Dymytrk did indeed make The Jugglers, the first Hollywood film to be made in Israel, starring Kirk Douglas. Yet Tidhar’s fictional leading man is the antithesis of Douglas and the fact that his film is called The Vultures should give the reader some idea of where Tidhar is coming from.
For in Adama everyone is preying or feasting on everyone else lower down the food chain. Drugs, inevitably, fold into this dark history of Israel’s beginnings — and sooner or later, according to Tidhar, everyone gets what’s coming to him or her.
As a study of biblical come-uppance, the land and the blood have the last say. I recommend Adama as an instructive primer for today’s generation of Israeli politicians.
There are, indeed, lessons to be learned.