Eshkol Nevo – Neuland

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Israelis love to escape, or maybe they just need to. It’s a country constantly under the threat of war. The fear of an attack is always upon us whenever we go outside. Even if we don’t consciously think something might happen, it’s in the back of the head. The news is constantly informing us about who died and who got injured. While everyone else in the Western world is having sex at the age of 18, we’re learning how to use a gun.

The desire to escape is all over the country. Not everyone actually experiences the army, but they’re well aware of it (and aware they were completely useless). Nevo isn’t any different. Addressing this escapism can be a recipe for a great Israeli novel. It won’t be good just in the traditional sense, but also provide insight into the Israeli psyche. Every country needs literature that can define it. Nevo takes the idea of escape a little too far though. He doesn’t explore the idea so much as trying himself to escape into his own book.

Bad things happen, so? There’s a reason schizophrenia, depression and discriminated sexual orientation are among the top reasons for suicide. Nevo’s main problem is that, while he can write about terrible things happening he cannot write inner troubles. How events affect us is what’s truly important. Read stories of people who’ve been through horrors. The transformation, their new point of view is what’s so harrowing. Read Dylan Kebold’s mom article. The horror is in her inner struggles, how the Columbine Massacre made her question everything.

People die and everything is falling apart in this novel. One person commits suicide and the other suffers from PTSD. In order for our main characters to question, to struggle with something, they first need a personality. Unless there is a personality that reacts to the events, all there is generic sadness. People get sad over dysfunctional relationship and death, but that’s it? It can’t be that simple. I’ve read hundreds of stories of people who lost others to suicide and each one is more harrowing as the previous one.

It can’t be that easy, but Nevo wants it to be so easy. His main characters are both sex bombs, people who don’t actually struggle with anything. Dori is an idealist who never has an oppurtunity to doubt his idealism. Women fall for him, students adore him and his relationship with his wife is rocky. Nevo solves this conflict by dismissing her as a career-freak who doesn’t know what’s really important. As for Inbar, she’s also a sex bomb who wants the travel the world and see stuff. If you’ve been to Israel, you met these type of people – aimless, directionless, always horny and thinking that weed is profound.

What does it say about an author who pushes aside a PTSD victim and a suicide in order to focus on these two perfect people? It’s as if Nevo epitomizes what’s wrong with the world. We’re all so focused on the pretty and perfect people we forget the Nobodies. I thought literature and art in general meant to give voices to the weird, the strange and the surprising. There’s nothing gripping about this couple. Nothing about them is startling or odd. They’re exceptionally normal. Sure, they get sad over stuff but that’s it.

Later in the novel a paradise is introduced. Besides admitting that it’s not a utopia and that they’re still working on it, it’s as bad as it sounds. If you needed any other proof Nevo wants to escape, this is it. It’s a world where the mentally wounded (who are all happy there with no evidence of their ‘wounds’) can gather and heal themselves. It’s a self-sustaining community with no conflict and all peace. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t reveal any flaw in the original Zionist plan. There is no philosophy that drives this utopia besides being nice to each other. It’s a cute idea that’s very hard to put in practice.

The utopia is also rigidly against violence. Why? Violence is an integral part of human nature. The utopia does feature sport games, which are an extension of violence. We enjoy competition and the adrenaline of hitting and being hit. A good civilization finds a productive way to use this drive. It’s ironic Nevo sings praise of sexuality while dismissing violence. Anyone can pick up a sword, but sexuality is also a world of losers and winners, where the Beautiful People are having fun while everyone else is cast out. If anything, violent games are more fair than romantic love.

Nevo’s vision of South America is your typical Israeli bullshit. There’s some poverty, but life is mostly peaceful and fun. The occasional view of the dangers is quickly swept aside. South America is mostly a place for new adventures and new perspective. If I were a SouthAmerican, I’d be offended. These countries don’t exist to provide Western people a new sense of purpose, to cure their emptiness. They’re countries with their unique histories and cultures and issues. Israel has a strong Leftist/Social Justice movement. I’m surprised no one called out Nevo about how South America isn’t an amusement park or a psychotherapist.

The prose is also horrid. Nevo rambles with no style or rhythm. There isn’t a word for this type of prose. It’s not a sign of uniqueness but a lack of focus. Nevo just spills a lot of words, going in and out of character heads. He puts no quotation marks around dialogues. That might make sense in minimalist novels but not in a gushing prose like this one. He also likes to ‘switch’ points of view. It’s the third-person-limited which is really third-person-omniscient and doesn’t add anything.

We even get long backstories about side characters. There’s that washy-washy thing about how our current couple re-create the secret and forbidden love of their grandparents. It’s kind of epic, but looks silly in a serious novel such as this. What does it have to do with the Israelis’ desire to escape?

I have read an interesting article about the symbolism and meaning. The novel isn’t without purpose. Nevo just took it too close to heart. Instead of examining the Israeli psych and its darkness, our desire to escape he just wrote an escapist yarn for himself. It sold a lot of copies, but that’s because Israelis will escape anywhere – to South America, to Game of Thrones, to the dream of getting rich off SmartPhone apps and to crap novels like this. If this is how one of our most acclaimed novelists write, we’ve got a bigger problem than the conflict with the Palestinians.

1 blue pill out of 5

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Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

The Elections in Israel

There were elections in Israel. If you haven’t heard of it, Israel is a country that’s known to make Muslims feel bad because of its rather secular laws and all the gays that don’t get executed. If you have followed the news of the election, you probably heard Netanyahu won. You probably also encountered a lot of insults with very little evidence that made you wonder whether 13-year-old Rage Against the Machine fans now run the news agencies.

Here are a few views from inside.

The elections are for the Knesset, the lawmaking body. The more votes a party gets, the more Knesset Members (KM’s, also known as mandates) get in. Then, after everyone finds their seat the coalition and opposition form. Coalition will always be bigger than the opposition, and it’s the governing body. It won’t necessarily be led by the biggest party. You don’t just need a lot of KM’s, but you also need a lot of other parties by your side.

Parties sometimes join forces and run for the elections as “lists”.

These are the big parties:

Likud – led by Netanyahu, recognized as the main right-wing party
Zionist Camp/HaMachane HaTzioni – A united list of Labor/Ha’Avoda party and The Movement/HaTnua’a. It’s recognized as the main left-wing party, and is led by Herzog from Labor.
Future/Yesh Adit – Led by Yair Lapid, is recognized as centrist
The Jewish Home/HaBait HaYehudi – a more far-right party led by Nafatali Bennet, and represents the more religious population of Israel
Meretz – The far-left party, led by Zehava Galon.
Israel Our Home/Israel Beitenu – A secular far-right party, let by Avigdor Lieberman, generally associated with the secular Russian population
Shash – An Ultra-Orthodox party
Judaism of the Torah/Yehadut HaTorah – Another Ultra-Orthodox party
All of Us/Kulano – Led by Moshe Kachlon, formerly part of the Likud
The United List – A union of the biggest Arabic parties. The controversial Chanin Zoabi is here. There’s a decent amount of illegalities going around in this party that are probably overlooked in order not to seem racist.
Together/Yahad – A much more far-right and religious party. It’s led by a former member of Shash, and includes Otzma LeIsrael (Power to Israel), a very far-right party that’s known to be borderline racist

There are also a lot of small parties, such as:
Green Leaf/Ale Yarok – A party whose sole purpose is the legalization of marijuana. It’s popular among self-centered morons
The Greens/HaYerukim – A party with an evironmentalist agenda
The Pirates/HaPiratim – Part of the global pirate movement
Orr/Light – A strictly secular party dedicated to the seperation of church and state
Economy Party/Mifleget Kalkala – A weird thing that sits very close to satire.

In order to get into the Knesset, you need to get a certain percetentage of the votes. That percentage is loosely translated as “Block Percentage”. A common thinking in many Israelis is to only vote for parties that can pass this percentage. Votes for parties that don’t pass don’t count in the end.

Now, which party gained my vote?

Choosing was a tiring process. I haven’t encountered enough reasons for or against Netanyahu. He did a few moronic things, such as responding to a report regarding rising prices with “Yeah, but Iran”. The Jewish Home is too religious. Like Likud, I haven’t encountered a reason to vote for Zionist Camp. If anything, the fact they poured so much money into a campagne that’s nothing but ad hominem made them look like little kids. The few times I saw interviews by Herzog, he seemed like he cared much more about replacing Netanyahu than anything.

Kachlon, aside from the reform he did with the mobile companies, didn’t seem to have much to offer. There wasn’t anything bad there, but nothing for it. Lapid seemed like a great option, but there was a lot of criticism against him. Some of which was horseshit (“He didn’t do anything!” the previous Knesset lasted barely 3 years), some of which made sense (He wasn’t very consistent, and what he said didn’t reflected in his actions). While I respect Lieberman’s bluntness, his party says little but keeping Israel safe. He actually has potential to be a right-wing party that’s also about secularism, but he doesn’t take his party much further.

While I agree with a lot of Meretz’s views, their method seems to be mainly “We’re not right-wingers!”. Their leader is especially very emotional. When it was revealed that a lot of members in Jewish Home are against gay marriage, Galon wrote a long Facebook post that was supposed to make me think Bennet and his buddies are on some ISIS shit. Lapid just mentioned he was for gay marriage. Meretz also seem to be totally unaware of the realities of Islamic terror.

The Ultra-Orthodox parties and the United List are a no-brainer. The Ultra-Orthodox parties care about almost nothing but the interest of the Ultra-Orthodox. The United List contains a few extemists (Chanin Zoabi is the most famous ones) who are actually breaking the law. Yahad is supposed to be on the extreme side of the right-wing, much more than Lieberman and Bennet. While I think Israel should remain ‘Jewish’, as in, this is the ethnic majority, the religion must stay out of the gouvernment.

So, I found myself looking at the small parties, the ones who don’t pass the percentage.

Green Leaf were worthless. They had a few interesting points in their website, but it was obvious their main concern is marijuana. The only reason to vote for them is if you’re a self-centered teen who thinks marijuana is actually going to save us. The Pirates had great ideas, but Orr had better.

There was a great Facebook post by Orr where they pointed out that the division is, in fact, not between right/left wings but between the religious and the secular. They are right. Meretz to Israel Our Home, all of these parties are talking about the same subjects. They have different views, but there is room for dialogue. The Ultra-Orthodox parties, however, are concerned mainly with their populations and ditto for the united list. Orr, unlike Meretz, also recognize we’re fighting a religious enemy. This is not just a nationalistic conflict, but a religious one – between Islam and secularism.

Orr didn’t pass the percentage, obviously. They barely got 500 votes. I don’t care. They’re the only ones who deserve my vote.

As for the result, my main disappointment is the structure of the coalition. Herzog and Netanyahu fought like little kids, and now we’re stuck with Ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. It’s too bad they couldn’t see that it’s better for the country if they both sit together, rather than apart. I don’t know if I can blame them.

If I learned anything from the Israeli media during the elections, it’s that there’s no room for debates. Leftists are drugged idiots who will sell us and kill us all. Rightwingers are paranoid schizophrenics who want to kill every single arab. Political debates are terrible. People try to convince you to vote for their party not via evidence or logic, but by raising their voice and strawmanning. The idea that a party you won’t vote for can still have valid points escaped people. Go tell a Likudnik that Meretz’s secularism is needed, and he’ll go off on how crazy they are. Tell a Herzog fan that we need the right-wing’s caution, and you’ll be called a murderer.

The thing I worry about the most is not how the coalition will function, but that we haven’t hit rock bottom of discussions. Anti-intellectualism has been aggressively promoted, and I fear that in the next go round it will get even stronger. I hope not.