Lavie Tidhar is both incredibly prolific and remarkably eclectic. In the last couple of years alone he has released a weird Western-inspired fantasy (The Escapement), a futuristic science-fiction sequel to his award winning Central Station (Neom), a paean to the golden age of science fiction (The Circumference of the World) and the second book in his anti-matter of Britain series deconstructing the mythology of Great Britain (The Hood).
In among all this, Tidhar has also managed to get behind another country’s mythology – that of the State of Israel. 2022’s Maror was a look at Israel between the late 1970s and early 2000s told through the lens of its violent, drug-fuelled underbelly. Tidhar’s latest book, Adama crosses over with Maror but goes further back in time, serving as a kind of origin story for Maror and for the country itself. Adama, while still often dark and violent, is more nuanced as it deals with the strivers and survivors who came to Israel before and after World War II and both the vision and the trauma that drove the establishment and early years of the State of Israel.
They were not weak like the old Jews of Europe. They were new, and hard, and masters of this land. This ‘adama’, a word [Shosh] had to learn in Hebrew lessons, which she hated.
‘There is no a-d-a-m-a without d-a-m,’ her first teacher told her, proudly. ‘Dam’ was the Hebrew word for blood.
No land without blood.
Adama opens in Florida in 2009. Hannah is going through the effects of her mother, Esther, who has died from cancer. Those effects include a box of mementoes linked to the history that follows. The narrative quickly drops back twenty years to 1989 and to Lior, who returns to Kibbutz Trashim, drawn by the suicide of his old friend Danny.
Tel Aviv receded behind and fragmented into suburbs. Eventually they too, stopped, and the land became a darkness of fields and train tracks, of orange and avocado groves. Sleeping settlements came and went, ghostly lights in the darkness, and the isolated streetlights whooshed by as he drove past.
There, he reconnects with his formidable grandmother, Ruth. Lior, Danny and Esther grew up together on the kibbutz, children who were raised collectively, and over the course of the novel, Tidhar reflects on the psychological impact of that form of childrearing. But Lior is involved in organised crime (here is the crossover with Maror) and knows that something is not right, leading to an explosive confrontation with his former friends.
The narrative then goes back further, to the 1940s, and progresses chronologically until it loops back to these two framing stories. In 1946, Ruth is a young woman living a hand to mouth, hardscrabble life in a small tent settlement called Kibbutz Trashim, built close to an Arab village and full of young people, toughened and determined:
Kibbutz Trashim was built on a hard land, and it needed hard people to work it. But their folks were good people, idealists mostly from Europe who came with the movement, left their homes and lives behind to begin a new one in Palestine. Not like Dov and Israel, who were born here.
Ruth and her comrades are running guns to help fight the British and trying to assist those arriving illegally on boats from Europe. Ruth left Europe before the war, but knows that her sister and parents, who stayed, were betrayed and sent to the concentration camps, and she is also seeking revenge. As the story moves forward, Ruth’s sister Shosh, who survives the camps, finds her way to Israel, but she does not have the drive that Ruth has.
Tidhar then takes readers through the next 40 years of Israeli history through the lens of these characters, the next generation and the generation after that. In doing so he explores key events such as the purging of Arab villages in the lead-up to the War of Independence, the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, and the impact of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Many of the characters in Maror were corrupt and venal, working to a twisted version of what the State should be. The characters in Adama can be just as ruthless and violent, but there are other motivations driving their actions. In 1946, Dov is part of a brigade that is making its way through the countryside, driving Arab villagers from their homes:
The priority was clear. Eliminate fighting men and any resistance, send the rest fleeing, and raze what was left so they wouldn’t come back. It was the sort of necessary evil that was, well, necessary. Dov didn’t feel bad about that. You did what you had to do or others would do the same to you. So he marched on, in this land he knew so well, and he could smell the fresh growing za’atar and he saw a porcupine hide in a nook in the rocks when it saw the soldiers go past.
Many years later, Ruth tries to explain this perspective to her son Ophek:
‘I gave birth to you. When all this was just …’ She waved her hand. ‘Dirt.’
‘It was never just dirt,’ he said, angry. ‘There were villages, there were people living here –’
‘And now they don’t. So you would have a home.’
‘I didn’t ask for that,’ he said.
‘No!’ Ruth said. ‘You didn’t have to.’
As he has also shown in his anti-matter of Britain books (By Force Alone and The Hood) Tidhar excels at getting behind mythology. And there is plenty of mythology surrounding the creation of the State of Israel. In Adama, Tidhar dives into the messiness of this history. He ranges across a number of characters – idealists, dreamers, criminals, those who are dedicated to the cause of the land and those who are repelled by it. All of this made even messier by the personal relationships and community-based living that the kibbutz tried to epitomise, but which by the 1980s is already showing significant strain.
Maror was bleak and could be nihilistic. By taking readers further back in time, Tidhar is able to give some context for those characters and the actions that they took. In no way is he trying to excuse anything that happened, but he is trying to understand the past through these stories to explore the factors that gave rise to State of Israel as he now perceives it. While Maror was excoriating, Adama is more elegiac. It is a history of a land that emerged from bloody conflict, that has an ideological underpinning its people could never live up to, and a community that emerged from trauma that echoes through the generations.
This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.