Review: The Land Agent

Land: one word, a thousand meanings


By J David Simons
Saraband, £16.99

Lev Gottleib is an unusually passive hero, whose life is guided by chance and the passions of others. We first meet him in 1919, when he is the teenage citizen of a generic Poland. Not for long. His whorish stepmother - having taught him to type on a lovingly rendered Kanzler 1B - soon persuades his father to sail for America. Will Lev, in this concluding volume of Simons's Glasgow to Galilee trilogy, join them?

Lev declines the invitation, and opts instead for Palestine, not because he loves capitalism less than Zionism but because he is besotted with one of the zealous pioneers all set to make aliyah. Alas, she rejects him en route.

Once docked in Haifa, the collective gathers beneath a banner that reads: "Palestine Welcomes the Young Guard from Poland". Lev absents himself from the group, and follows instead the bearer of a sign that asks: "Can you type?" The man seeking a new employee is Samuel Ziv (aka Sammy the King), a land agent, whose nose for soil is like a sommelier's for wine. A sniff and he can pinpoint the source of any blessed earth, not to mention its constituent components.

This precision encompasses the macrocosm, making the topography of Palestine real. Poland may have been a backdrop for fairy tales but Palestine is a stage set for history. A land in which a Jew may step from the wings into the spotlight. Of course, the land laughs at such aspirations, a proper belly-laugh that causes many to quake in their boots, and scores to die in Nablus.

The institution for which Sammy and Lev work - the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA) - has high ideals. Above all, it seeks to ensure that any land acquired by Jews is not at the expense of any pre-existing tenant farmers, the so-called fellaheen. Others who are not so fastidious and more single-minded are called by Sammy: "Those Bloody Zionists".

A small drama (which is really a struggle for the soul of Israel) takes place in a hard-scrabble kibbutz called Kfar Ha'Emek, where Lev - now a land agent in his own right - is trying to broker a deal that will benefit not only the kibbutzniks, but also the local Bedouin. But, behind his back, more ruthless agents generate betrayal and strife, and the two peoples, Jew and Arab, eschew the PICA option of share-and-share alike in favour of winner-take-all. Sammy the King foresees the future and wants none of it.

I suspect that his view is seconded by the book's author; thank goodness that his choice of reaction - a novel - is less final than Sammy's. There are not many precedents for such a literary endeavour; one such is Arthur Koestler's Thieves in the Night (which draws a very different conclusion). Maybe it is just a coincidence, but Lev's favourite bakery in Haifa is called Koestler's. Either way, it puts Simons in good company.

It is at the beleaguered kibbutz that Lev meets Celia Kahn, Glasgow born, an engagement that links The Land Agent to the other volumes in the Glasgow-to-Galilee trilogy. Strictly speaking, it should be Glasgow to Galilee and Back Again, for the final book in the sequence ends beside a loch in Glenkura, where the Candide-like Lev is able to cultivate his garden in England's Canada, that rare thing - a Jew at peace.

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