Eating the magnificent bitter herb

Eating the magnificent bitter herb

For the JC August 2022

Maror by Lavie Tidhar Head of Zeus £20

Every few years an Israeli writer produces a blockbuster book, designed to set readers by the ears and occasionally readjust what they know — or think they know — about the Jewish state.

Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, tracing his own biography and what it was like to live under the British mandate, was such a one.

In 2013 there was Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, a must-read for the liberal bourgeoisie, both inside and outside Israel.

In my opinion, however, both fade into oblivion compared with Lavie Tidhar’s magnificent Maror, a panorama look at four decades of the dark, despicable side of Israel, of death, corruption, violence and drugs.

Maror, of course, is the bitter herb on display at the Passover seder table to remind celebrants of the pain behind the Jewish exodus. And Tidhar, who now lives in London, has turned his attention from his award-winning sci-fi and fantasy genre to examining the soul of Israel — and it’s not always a pretty picture.

But wow, it is a gripping one. Tidhar has chosen the police intelligence officer, Cohen — he has no other name, and perhaps he is, perhaps not, Cohen the High Priest — as our guide through the convulsive years of the state after the 1967 Six Day War. Cohen may be a fictional construct and so are his fellow cops and gangsters — but there is a terrific cast of real-life characters.

Tidhar peppers his pages with every well-known criticism of the politicians who walked the public stage from the 1970s to the present day. Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995, gets a particularly hard time, portrayed as a more or less permanent drunk; there’s a lightly disguised Rehavam Ze’evi, nicknamed Gandhi, here rendered as Zrubavel “Genghis” Ha’navi, shot dead in Jerusalem’s Hyatt Hotel in 2001, and presented as an out and out sexual predator; and there’s the almost forgotten, but huge figure in his day, Samuel Flatto-Sharon, who escaped France after being wanted for embezzling a mere $60 million, found asylum in Israel and started his own short-lived political party, gaining parliamentary privilege by sitting in the Knesset.

Tidhar’s prose is clipped and scattergun, the Hebrew slang terms rarely translated. Basically, if you know, you know, and if you don’t know, well, you are on an incredible learning curve. I’d give a lot to know whether he wrote Maror in English or Hebrew first — but it doesn’t matter.

Each chapter flits around in time zones and locations, from Lebanon to Mexico and Colombia, not always chronologically. Cohen pops up in most places, repeating biblical quotes where he thinks they are appropriate, ostensibly there originally to solve a series of beachfront rapes and murders, but actually to show us the inky black heart of what it takes to make a nation.

It was, Tidhar reminds us, the admired poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik, who first declared in the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. And Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, recalled this when he declared: “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew”.

Maror shows us the thieves, the tramps, the prostitutes, the violence, filth and corruption underlying the good behind the Zionist dream. Sadly, I think the lesson is that you can’t have one without the other. It’s a brilliant undertaking.

  • 9 September, 2022