In 1902, Theodor Benjamin Herzl, the founder of Zionism, published his utopian novel Altneuland (Old New Land). The book described his vision of Israel, half a century before the establishment of the State of Israel. Herzl’s vision is one of a liberal society living in a welfare state, where public ownership of land and resources co-exists with private entrepreneurship.
In 2006, Meni Peleg, the sixty year old fictional character in Nevo’s “Neuland” (New Land), decides to fulfil Herzl’s dream. But in Argentina.
Peleg is a successful business consultant whose wife’s death reawakens the post-traumatic disorder he’s been living with since the Yom Kippur war. He travels to South America and disappears. Dori, his son, goes on a rescue mission and meets Inbar, a woman who decided, on a whim, to go to South America after a traumatic visit to her mother in Berlin. The married middle-aged Dori and the single young Inbar are the main characters of this novel. Their life stories intertwine in more ways than one, two lost souls brought together by fate.
The book is very Israeli, in that it touches on many Israeli subjects. The memory of the Holocaust and how second- and third-generation Israelis deal with it. The problematic current day relationship with Germany. Israel’s wars: Meni’s Yom Kippur trauma, Inbar brother’s suicide in the army, and the second Lebanon war that brings Dori and Inbar back to Israel. And the novel being set in South America, there are the inevitable young Israeli mochileors traipsing the continent in their almost obligatory post-military service trip.
Nevo writes well, and the story flows smoothly between the characters. But at times I felt as if Nevo writes a little “too well”. Some of the characters are simply too perfect, as if Nevo wanted them to fit a certain role. Dori is the perfect husband; he won’t even fantasise about another woman. Inbar is the conscientious news editor, resigning from a lucrative radio job when she feels certain principles have been betrayed. Her mother, Hanna, is the imposing know-it-all academic. Alfredo, the local who helps Dori track down his father, is the typical care-free latino who seduces a different woman every night. And so on. It is as if Nevo created these characters in order to fulfill our expectations, not wanting to surprise us by having his heroes do something out of character. I don’t think it will be a big spoiler if I divulge that Dori and Inbar reach a happy ending of sorts.
Even the eponymous Neuland, which we reach towards the end of the novel, is blandly familiar. A sect of wide-eyed believers led by a visionary guru, building a utopian society where everybody works hard, everybody has a say, everything is built from scratch, blah blah blah. If Nevo had wanted to really say something about how Israel has turned out compared with Herzl’s vision, he could have come up with something a little more intellectually challenging than a bunch of lost mochileros who have had it with the “source country” and a “guru” that spends hours a day “thinking” and can’t even be bothered by news about a war affecting his family back home.
Over all, the book is well researched and the description of landscapes and places in South American sound genuine enough. It’s a shame the story itself is so banal. Nevo has proven in the past he can write a good story about ordinary people going about their own lives. Perhaps he aimed too high this time, with a vision to replace Herzl’s (no less!). The result is not somewhat disappointing.