A Prophet without Honor

Why is Lavie Tidhar, an author of global renown, so underappreciated in the land of his birth?

“No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” This expression, which many mistakenly trace to rabbinic literature, is actually from the New Testament: after Jesus expels the demons from a man into a herd of pigs and then heals a young girl, he returns home to Nazareth. While he is teaching, his congregants say (Mark 6:2-3): “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” In other words: You thought you would make such a big impression on us? Come on—we know who your family are. A frustrated Jesus told his students in response (Mark 6:4): “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town and among his relatives and in his own household.”

Many Israeli writers have been through a similar experience. From Ephraim Kishon, who resented being defined in Israel as a “humorist” while overseas he was feted as a quality author and playwright, to Aharon Appelfeld, who in Israel was exiled to the ghetto reserved for “Holocaust writers” while around the world he was respected as a poet of the Jewish fate. A similar and complicated example, whose unique characteristics this essay will try to lay out, is that of a (former) Israeli who has won a number of the leading prizes in his genre, been published in many respected publications, and received high praise for his work. Despite all this, Israel remains mostly unaware of his success, the praise that is showered on him, and the fact that many of his works deal with the same people and country which turns its back on him.

In 2012, Lavie Tidhar won the World Fantasy Award for his novel Osama, beating a distinguished list of authors including Steven King and George R. R. Martin. The novel is set in an alternate world where a femme fatale hires a private detective to find the author of pulp novels about a freedom fighter/terrorist—a la Captain Nemo—called Osama Bin Laden. In 2017, his novel Central Station won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. The novel, unfolding in the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station during a distant future, was also shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and Lokus awards. Since winning the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury International Science Fiction Competition award for his short story “Temporal Spiders, Spatial Webs,” Tidhar has been a finalist or winner of countless awards. His stories have appeared in leading magazines, and his works have been translated into many languages: Chinese, Polish, Spanish, Greek, French, Portuguese, and even his mother tongue, Hebrew.

Lavie Tidhar was born in Kibbutz Dalia (in Ramat Menashe, close to Haifa) in 1976, a time when children still slept in the communal children’s house. After reading everything in the kibbutz library—Tove Jansson, Janusz Korczak, Astrid Lindgren, Erich Kastner and others —he would travel to the old port in Haifa, an hour’s journey away, where he would spend hours wandering between two of the institutions that the city was known for: shawarma stands and second-hand bookshops. There, he could gorge himself on everything he desired, from Stalags like the infamous I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch to detective novels and pulp fiction (often written under pseudonyms like Bert Witford) by writers like Eyal Maged, Pinchas Sadeh, and Amos Keinan, and Israeli and translated science fiction and fantasy (SF & F), for example the Captain Yuno series by the playwright Eli Sagai. This rich diet of pulp fueled Tidhar’s imagination, and continues to be a creative inspiration today, although he is ambivalent about their influence. In a book written together with the Sapir Prize-winning poet Shimon Adaf, Art and War: Poetry, Pulp and Politics in Israeli Fiction, he said: “I’m essentially a pulp writer with aspirations. I love stories—but at the same time, I think I gorged too much on them, I had too many too quickly, and now, like eating too much candyfloss in one night, I don’t like them so much.” In this intriguing collaboration, the two writers hold a dialogue about their works and roots and their complicated relationship with Israel and Jewish history. The book also includes one new story by each author, in which each appears as a character in the other’s tale. During the dialogue, Tidhar talks about his first published work, a poetry book called Crumbs from God: A Handbook for the Messiah, which came out in 1998: “My first—and so far only—poetry collection was written when I was young. When I discovered poetry. I simply never realized you could do that with words. And when I suddenly realized it, it was amazing.” In a number of the poems in this collection, many of the main influences on Tidhar’s work are already evident. Science fiction expresses itself with the mention of Muad’Dib, the hero of Frank Herbert’s Dune, in this next poem: “I dream of the future. Like Muad’Dib I see/the divergent paths of time and the possibilities/that can take place.” Also on display is Tidhar’s love of travel, which began at age 15, taking him to the Republic of Vanuatu, South Africa, and Britain: “I dream/of red African sunsets, glorious, glass pipes/and a jinn with a tunic, I dream my life through the continued dream of/Africa” (Africa Dreams).

In 1998, one of these trips gave birth to what would become Osama. Tidhar stayed in Dar es Salaam while recovering from malaria, and then went to Nairobi. There, he stayed in the same hotel as the Al Qaeda operatives who, two weeks later on August 7th, blew up a truck bomb outside the US embassies in both cities. As Tidhar explained in an interview with Jeremy Jones from Clarkesworld: “I’ve lived in some of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth. I’ve hitchhiked across Eastern Europe and Southeast Africa. I traveled on the trans-Siberian railway and stood on a frozen river of ice in the Gobi Desert.” This has transformed him into the modern incarnation of the Wandering Jew. Even when far from Israel (Tidhar has only returned to live in the country for short periods), insights into Israeli life and Jewish history run through many of his works, as well as the desire to prove that Israeli SF & F is possible. As he tried to express it in Art and War: “I’ll write about kibbutzim on Mars, and Yiddish speaking robots, and aliens who develop a symbiotic relationship with their human hosts – as their yarmulkes. I’ll write science fiction set in Tel Aviv and fantasy set in Haifa and I’ll show them, I’ll show them all!” Yet still, as he explained in an interview with the magazine The Fantasy Hub: “For a long time, I was ignored by any Jewish magazines or anything, and suddenly, which startled me, I was doing the Jewish stuff. And I don’t want to be a Jewish writer, I just want to be a writer.”

Jewish and Israeli subjects do come up in his books. There are stories which take place in Haifa, and demonstrate, according to Ehud Maimon’s article “Haifa Haifa – City with a Future”: “The power of books and bookstores to shape the city’s reality and the stories’ heroes perception of reality; the sanctity of the city (with an emphasis on sun and fire rituals); the eternity of the city, the port and the mountain range on which it sits; the mixing of times and places (which in part comes from the same eternity) that is expressed through the establishment of the city in different timelines; and in the mixing of the mythological and the realistic.” There are books dealing with Sephardic poetry (Solve Mysteries with Mercy); and the Central Station story cycle, in which the future is saturated with miracles, aliens, robots, frequent space flights, and genetically engineered children alongside the descendants of the migrant workers who populate Tel Aviv today. Tidhar also deals with the Jewish fate. He presented his agent with the idea behind A Man Lies Dreaming as “Adolf Hitler – private detective.” The novel’s historical sections take place in Auschwitz, and its alternative history in London, where Adolf, or “Wolf”, as locals call him, tries—despite his hatred of Jews—to solve a complicated case for the wealthy Isabella Rubenstein. “What I try to do is come at big topics from a skewed angle,” Tidhar tells Adaf. “The Holocaust as pulp. Israel and Palestine viewed through alternative history. Terrorism as a detective novel.” The thought-provoking result compels the reader to accept Hitler’s character as the protagonist of the plot, to examine how a change in perspective, a shift in time, can force us to re-examine basic assumption and step completely out of our comfort zone. To rewrite our historical memory backwards.

But these are some of the reasons why in his country of birth, of all places, Tidhar’s work is seldom published. Over the years, Tidhar has written short stories in Hebrew—mainly before his international career took off—and even wrote two novels in his mother tongue, But until now, only two of the nine novels he has written in English, Central Station and A Man Lies Dreaming, have been published in Hebrew, and only one of them by a major publisher— Keter, who do not focus on SF & F. Of the 40 short stories published in Hebrew, in publications devoted to SF & F, only around half have been translated.

Tidhar himself is well aware of his complicated relationship with his audience, especially in Hebrew. As he tells Adaf: “I have a very ambivalent relationship with my hypothetical readership. Who, in God’s name, am I writing for? I abandoned Hebrew for English, very consciously…Parts of my life are completely alien to non-Israelis. But parts of my thinking are completely alien to Israelis, too.” At the end of the day, Tidhar says, like James Joyce ,“I need to be an exile in order to write about home.”

The existing translations into Hebrew illustrate the gap between the language in which he was raised and the language in which he writes. Many of them omit descriptions to the audience, like those which explain how arak or shakshuka is made; while other changes actually emphasize the Hebraics on which Tidhar’s poetic rely, like the excellent solution to the translation of the robot’s name “R Brother Patch-It” in Central Station to ר’ תטליא. The R is borrowed from Isaac Asimov’s robots, but the use of the “תטליא,” with its Aramic sound, turns the machine into something out of the Talmud.

This divided identity is closely related to the broader issue of Tidhar as a non-western, global, genre writer. He has edited five anthologies, and believes, as he wrote in a column for the magazine Gizmodo: “The future of science fiction is dependent on its global nature, on its international authors, who each bring their own unique visions and experience, their own background and culture, and their shared love of the fantastical to their work. From Uganda to Bangladesh, from Mexico to France, from Israel to the Philippines, science fiction is alive and kicking, a vibrant new generation of writers changing the face of the genre one story at a time.”

And yet, Tidhar’s books don’t receive coverage in the mainstream Israeli media. In the only interview he gave when he won the World Fantasy Award for Osama, to Ynet, he said: “Until it came out, I had already made my peace that nobody would see it. I didn’t keep count of how many publishers rejected it.”

The primary reason Tidhar is rejected by the Israeli publishing industry and most Israeli readers is the genre in which he writes. Science fiction—and to a lesser extent fantasy as well—hasn’t become part of the Israeli mainstream in the same way that thrillers and detective novels have. Israelis have a clear preference for realism. One might expect that a state which was built on the foundations of a utopian novel—Altneulandwould show an interest in the genre, but from the moment we turned the legend into reality, we rejected the former in favour of the latter. Israeli works which have been written in the genre mainly present the complete transformation of the Herzl-ian utopia. From Amos Keinan’s The Road to Ein Harod to The Third by Yishai Sarid, Israeli works which look into the future frequently present the same dystopian and post-apocalyptic ideas. Whether the catastrophe they present takes place in the present or the past, or whether it’s caused by messianic extremists or following a climate disaster, their works are always bleak and shrouded in existential fear. Tidhar offers a totally different kind of genre writing, one which examines the intriguing possibilities of alternative histories: the stylistic extravaganza of the Steampunk, or a realistic fantasy which is mundane in its sensibilities.

It’s important to emphasize that in Israel there is an active audience of SF & F lovers raised on a similar diet to Tidhar’s. They continue to write and publish, mostly unseen by the critics, literary scholars, and the wider public. Tidhar knows this community well. Together with Nir Yaniv, he has even written a self-published parody about them, in Hebrew, called Imaginary Murder. His original and translated stories can be read in publications like Don’t Panic (edited by Rami Shalhevet) or the anthologies It Was It Will Be (edited by Ehud Maimon).

Another sign of the “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” syndrome which Tidhar suffers from in Israel relates to his international success. Like the congregants in Jesus’s synagogue with their provincial condescension, the local audience has a tendency to turn its nose at works which gain success in the wider world, especially when they are written about Israel. This condescension is familiar to the writers themselves. As Ayelet Tsabari, an Israeli who writes in English and won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in 2015, explained in an interview with Haaretz after signing a three-book contract with the prestigious publisher Random House:  “I was afraid of the responsibility, to write about the Israel that I know…I was afraid that they’d say it wasn’t accurate, that who am I to write about Israel when I don’t live there, and I was afraid of how it would be received.” Sometimes even successful authors, like Etgar Keret or Eshkol Nevo, prefer to only publish certain works abroad, “for all sorts of reasons. It’s connected to privacy,” as Keret said in an interview with Makor Rishon about his decision not to publish his illustrated memoir The Seven Good Years in Hebrew. On the other hand, as nationalism has strengthened in Israel, the Sapir Prize has decided to disqualify Israeli writers living overseas. This doesn’t help writers who live on the seam between the local and the global, Hebrew and foreign languages.

Above all these obstacles is one unique minefield placed in the way of Tidhar’s acceptance by Israeli audiences. This is the way he treats what the Nova Press publisher Didi Chanoch once called “The Matter of Israel.” This “Matter” relates to the accumulation of the cultural associations which make up the spirit of a country. In Britain, for example, this often relates to King Arthur and his knights. In Israel, it presents our long-but-fragmented history: from the Maccabis to the pogroms and the yellow badge, from the Exodus to the kibbutz movement. Some of these episodes are no less mythic than King Arthur, like the Golem of Prague and the stories of the Hasidim; others are founded on facts, but built into a fictional epic, like the heroes who defended Masada or the story of Trumpeldor and Tel Hai.

“The history that I learned at school is to a certain extent a fantasy,” Tidhar told Yotam Schweiemer in the same Ynet interview. “Essentially the only way to write reliably about Israel is with books that are at least aware of being fantastic. This literature has a lot of political strength, but it’s also to a certain extent a literature of escape. What interests me is the combination of the desire to escape and the desire to confront.” And Tidhar does confront. For him, these are clay in the author’s hands, and he molds them, makes them into new forms, tints them with global colors and shapes them anew, creating a mash-up of styles, influences and sources that are entirely his and nobody else’s. Therefore there is no place in a country which sanctifies the memory of the Holocaust and consistently associates it with heroism—while using it frequently for political  ammunition—for a book that imagines a forced and cruel circumcision performed on Adolf Hitler, the private detective, that presents him as the hero of the book and the victim of vengeful Jews, producing at the same time a collective fantasy and a collective taboo.

The curious and distant treatment which Tidhar lends these explosive political and cultural materials offers not only criticism of their centrality for the Israeli public, but also alternative readings of the Jewish/Israeli DNA sequence. His devotion to alternative history isn’t just fascinating and immaculately done, but also assumes that history isn’t something fixed and stable, rather a garden of forked paths where events could have turned out differently. This very perception challenges something fundamental in our deterministic vision of ourselves as the “chosen people.”

“That is the best thing we can do, try to imagine alternate realities, how else will we understand, or resolve, our own?” Tidhar said in a television interview with a presenter who had belittled the genre in which he chooses to write. And indeed, the possibilities that he lays out and offers lies in the strength to understand and to interpret our present in different ways, to cast our reality and to give ourselves intriguing and tempting glimpses of our future as it could—maybe—be. This is a local and global future, where everything is a mixture of high and low, truth and fable, warning and prophecy. Maybe the time to heed his visions has arrived.

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