Neuland: A meandering tale of epic proportions that fails to engage

The novel follows a dual pattern. Lenny Peleg, a veteran of the Yom Kippur War and erstwhile businessman, goes missing in South America. Dori his son, a history teacher, leaves his wife and young son in Israel to go in search of him. 

Paralleling this is radio producer and aspiring writer Inbar, who impulsively leaves Berlin to go to South America to escape the grief of her brother’s death and a boyfriend she doesn’t love.

Although it takes nearly half the book for Inbar to finally arrive in South America, the two patterns eventually cohere when Dori and Inbar meet.

And this is where the story could possibly have started because it is only when they converge does the plot take off, as she helps him in his quest to locate his father.

His father’s own quest we learn at the end was for a utopian Jewish neuland or, as the promiscuous and down-to-earth Alfredo, employed to trace the missing man, saw it: ‘Mr Dori’s father wants to build something on a farm from a hundred years ago.’

The novel offers a lot in its epic proportions of more than 600 pages and shows great evidence of research, but it doesn’t quite deliver in engagement.

It is full of longueurs and in need of severe cutting and ordering.

Dialogues in particular are inclined to be drawn out and it sometimes treads tired and worn territory, for example, when Inbar’s mother tells her daughter that ‘not all Germans were Nazis’.

The book contains interesting and perhaps significant insights into modern Jewish culture, but more than that is needed to constitute a novel.

There are some good particulars about the characters such as the brown age spots on Inbar’s mother’s arms and some good descriptions of inner worlds effected through modern technology as when Dori, fearful of his growing feeling towards Inbar, wonders at his keyboard if he could turn the H on its belly and place it between them like a bridge.

But other details are repetitive or occasionally, as in the case of Inbar’s writerly reflections, squirm-inducing: ‘Pouring out your heart is sometimes just pouring out your heart’ or ‘writing in a journal is sometimes just writing in a journal’ or the inane ‘only the present is present’.

Some of the best writing lies in the portrayal of South America where one gets a real feeling of being in these places, as in the fraught insights about Lima where police were on every corner and the chemist had to dispense medication through bars.

Or as they move outside Buenos Aires the bleakness of the scene is captured very well: ‘birds perch on electric wires… that sink in the middle like hammocks,’ and ‘a rusty sign advertises a hotel which is not there’.

The best line perhaps belongs to Nessia, Inbar’s fictional alter ego, who was not attracted to writers because ‘they all take on the shape of a chair after a while and you’re always afraid they’re sleeping with you as part of their research’.

The narrative wanders into stream of consciousness as Lenny unfolds his hallucinogenic vision of a ‘community therapeutic space’ away from the trauma of living in Israel.

The weakest writing is in the description of the so-called utopia itself. It is vague and pseudo-hippy: Gardens had ‘a harmonious, balanced symmetry’ and ‘young people wearing heavy sweaters and woollen hats filled the lanes and the place bustled with vibrant, joyous life…’ It felt like we were going to see The Wizard of OZ.

James Lawless’ latest novel is American Doll;

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo. Vintage, €24.90


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