A few years ago, in India, I hired a car with driver to travel north of Udaipur through some lovely but lonely stretches of the Aravalli hills. Before we struck a deal, the guide showed me his book of recommendations from satisfied customers. A remarkable number were in Hebrew.
Often, but not always, undertaken soon after military service, the “big trip” overseas of six months or more punctuates the lives of young - and not so young - Israelis. This “hummus trail” now spans the planet. It opens up the world to people who live in a state of siege. Roadsigns just outside Jerusalem warn Israeli citizens that they are forbidden even to enter the so-called “Area A” districts of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control.
Given the gridlock in the region’s politics, writers as much as travellers seek an exit from hamatzav - the situation. In Jerusalem, the year before last, the gifted young writer Nir Baram outlined to me his impatience with a fiction of hand-wringing witness that records the cyclical tragedies of an agonising stalemate. “We are not limited to current affairs,” he said. “It’s not the right way to use the freedom of literature. We expect too much of this culture of ‘shooting and crying’.” Baram’s own alternative involves a swerve into history to imagine an ordinary German who co-operates with the Nazis, in his novel Good People. In the zany stories of Etgar Keret, the “situation” mutates into surreal, mind-stretching parables. Eshkol Nevo’s epic Neuland, which begins as a great escape but concludes as a bold political parable, takes yet another route.
Baggy, flawed but studded with wrenching emotions and original ideas, this is the third novel by the grandson of Levi Eshkol - Israel’s prime minister during the 1967 war. It treats the long-haul flight from a pressure-cooker homeland as a means for Israelis to encounter themselves and their nation afresh. Its characters have to go all around the houses in order to understand - and maybe change - their own backyard. At the outset, Nevo’s meandering story offers both a family melodrama and an exotic, romantic travelogue. Then it steers into a state-of-the-nation narrative. Like the curious location where it ends, Neuland ultimately feels as if it “came into being to disturb people and arouse their doubts”.
We begin with a generation-switching quest, set in summer 2006 as yet another conflict looms. Menny Peleg, heroic veteran of the Yom Kippur War and charismatic businessman, has gone missing in South America after the death of his beloved wife. His son Dori, an anti-nationalistic history teacher, flies to Ecuador to trace him with the help of Alfredo, a local finder of absconding foreigners (“Sometimes I have the feeling that you Israelis really want to get lost”). In Quito he meets the would-be writer Inbar, herself grieving the loss through suicide - or was it? - of her brother during his army service.
The narrative voices proliferate and intertwine: Dori, Alfredo, Inbar, her academic mother Hana - at work in the now-welcoming city of Berlin on a thesis about the Wandering Jew legend - and granny Lily. Translator Sondra Silverston bravely keeps pace with dizzying shifts of tone and mood. Lily’s memories of a dangerous passage from Warsaw Mandate Palestine just before the Holocaust – because “I want to live in a place where it’s not shameful to be me” - remind us that this far-flung story will wind its way back home. Her tale returns to the national source, and the “passion to make a fresh start”.
Three generations spar and joust, in families bound by uneasy love but framed - still - by fear. Will Dori find his dad, whose battlefield trauma from the “inferno” of 1973 has lain dormant until bereavement detonated it? Will he and Inbar get together - both unhappily hitched, mutually attracted, and far from home? As the road-movie plot zigzags from Ecuador through Peru, Bolivia and finally Argentina, we glimpse the troubled back-stories uneasily crammed into backpacks. No longer stifled, the Israelis vagabonds flee the built-over, fought-over terrains of home to an easy-breathing, mixed-up continent of “unimaginable breadth”.
The trip grows weirder as Dori and Inbar close in on the fugitive father who had begun to feel like “an island of a person surrounded by a sea of panic”. After as many twists and detours as an Andean mountain road, we reach a land of Utopian - or dystopian - fantasy. As if under the influence of the psychotropic “potion” that comes to play a vital role, Nevo casts guide-book realism to the winds. His pair of seekers comes across a new-age community of Israeli Jews in deepest Argentina. This “Neuland” offers a hippy revival of Zionism that will correct the flaws of the prototype. The name matters: “Altneuland” was the title of the Utopian novel that Theodor Herzl, creator of modern Zionism, published in 1902. Herzl’s ideal Jewish homeland remained secular, ecumenical and inclusive. His plot, indeed, turns on the defeat of a racist anti-Arab faction.
Nevo’s fictional Neuland has its roots in Baron Maurice von Hirsch’s historical - but fruitless - efforts to implant a Jewish homeland in Argentina. And his imaginary commune casts its reformist light on the real Altneuland - Israel itself - from the perspective of a “shadow state” which aims to renew the war-wrecked idealism of the real one. It’s a circuitous progress, with some longueurs as well as striking revelations along the way. Still, Nevo does have an answer for readers who may ask why some globe-trotting Israeli authors find it easier to address the Berlin Wall than the Separation Wall at the end of their street.
At the close, Dori and Inbar look out from the Dung Gate in Jerusalem. They imagine a mystical “sea” of eternal journeys and exiles: “waves of wandering, waves of return”. In reality, that view leads you past the bitterly contested “City of David” archaeological site - history or propaganda? - down to the Palestinian village of Silwan, once a Yemeni Jewish settlement, where the Jewish return to Jerusalem’s outskirts provokes protests, lawsuits and evictions. Nevo will know all that. Although in part about escapism, Neuland is not an escapist novel. In the tradition of satirical and visionary Utopias (many set in South America), it sidesteps everyday reality in order to see it more clearly. Back here in “Altneuland”, the wars and the walls remain. The “shooting and crying” persist. Neuland does what a novel can: it helps to clear the roadblocks in the mind.