Friday, 15 January 2010
Lavie Tidhar, HebrewPunk (2007)
[Note: Puttering around on my hard drive I came across this, a review I wrote for Strange Horizons a couple of years ago. Back then it was spiked by the reviews' editor, that tall man Niall Harrison, on the grounds that I was a friend of the author. This was fair enough, and indeed the original version of the review concluded with a lengthy disquisition on the desirability of extreme reviewerish candour and the importance of full-disclosure, ending: "my judgment is that this is a very entertaining collection of fast-moving horror-punk, not without flaws but with enough verve to overcome them. That is neither dialed down nor up to spare or otherwise Lavie’s feelings. Besides which, the last I heard he'd moved to an island in the South Pacific where all the computers are made of bamboo; so he may not be in a position to read this anyway." Putting the review out, belatedly, on the wastenotwantnot principle in this venue, I've seen fit to cut all that. AR]
Here’s another collection to add to the large pile of stories about vampires, zombies, golems, werewolves and other creatures of that phylum. The writer who aspires to stand out in this crowded environment needs, of course, to find a way of making it new; and Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk does this by, in effect, Hebraicising the source material. His heroes (or anti-heroes, for there are some pretty nasty characters here) are Jewish: the Rabbi, Tzaddik and the Rat. They possess a number of Semitic magical abilities and wisdoms. Tidhar’s werewolves, on the other hand, are Nazi ‘Wulfkommando’ soldiers, his demons figures from Kabbalistic tradition. It’s a canny angle on material that might otherwise be overfamiliar.
HebrewPunk comes in at just under 150 large-print pages, but in part the slenderness is a function of the leanness of Tidhar’s style. We all know the conventions of hardboiled horror—the seamy urban environs, the lumpenproletariat characters, the dark magic and the ultraviolence—and Tidhar doesn’t waste time elaborating this in too much detail; instead, in each of his four brisk narratives, he cracks straight on. ‘The Heist’ (2005) is, as you might guess from its title, a heist story, except that the bank being robbed is a blood bank, and the robbers a collection of vampires and monsters, under the Rabbi’s beardy and slightly mysterious leadership. ‘The Transylvanian Mission’ (2004) pitches us, with ‘The Rat’, in amongst Partisans and Nazis in occupied 1940s mitteleuropa. ‘The Dope Fiend’ (2005) steps back to the London drug-scene of the 1920s, and the adventures of various exotic (and in Tidhar’s treatment, supernatural) decadents. All three stories are fast-moving, twisty, frequently violent and bloodspattered. ‘The Heist’ is rather too short for its own good, its conclusion too rushed, but the other two are well handled examples of horrorpunk given an intriguingly effective Jewish inflection.
The fourth story, the previously unpublished ‘Uganda’, is rather better. The Rabbi is recruited to track a team of Europeans exploring the Uasin Gishu Plateau in East Africa with a view to establishing a Jewish homeland on the Ugandan border. It is a confidently handled piece of storytelling and is the stronger for not giving way, as Tidhar sometimes does in his other pieces, to the ‘bang! bang!’ impulse—the desire, that is to say, to pep the narrative up with injections of violence (from ‘The Transylvanian Mission’: ‘he … drove his razor-like nails into the man’s abdomen, hard, sliding up in a bloody arc through his body, opening a large gaping gash. The man screamed a high, keening howl…’, 37). The rule of thumb for representing violence is that less is usually more; and in ‘Uganda’ Tidhar shows that he can handle less very well indeed when he wants to. The world of the East African plateau is well described; the intertextual allusions to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness subtly handled, and the ending manages a feline uncompleteness that is much more suggestive and effective than a more conventional tying-up of loose ends. In the course of his travels the Rabbi has a vision of the future, which is an alt-historical Ugandan Jewish homeland (one character dismissively names it ‘Jewganda’). It’s somewhat in the manner of Michael Chabon’s alt-historical Jewish Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman Union; except that where that novel groans rather under the weight of specific fictive detail, Tidhar’s ‘Jewganda’ gleams with suggestive concision. It’s a story that delivers more than the slightly by-the-book thrills of the other pieces.
There is a deliberately old-fashioned vibe to these stories; an emphasis on kinetic narrative and intensity. Sometimes the effect is broad-brush, and sometimes the details go askew. So, for example, to declare that ‘even Eternal wanderings must come to an end’  involves a contradiction in terms; and none of Josef Mengele’s staff would be so foolish as to address him as ‘Herr Mengele’  (the proper mode of address would be ‘Hauptsturmführer’, or at the very least ‘Herr Doktor Mengele’). But the energy of the stories carries the reader past occasional hiccoughs; it makes a thoroughly entertaining read.
There’s one further point worth making here, and it has to do with the protocols of book reviewing. The back cover of HebrewPunk is adorned, as books often are nowadays, with endorsements: ‘Lavie Tidhar has staked out (no pun intended) his own territory … these four stories are wondrous, adventurous and thought-provoking’ Ellen Datlow … ‘Lavie Tidhar has a unique and fascinating voice’ Kage Baker … and so on. The last of these blurbs is from ‘Adam Roberts, author of Gradisyl’; and he, despite the fact that I have never written a novel with such a title, is indeed me. The blurb to which my name is appended praises the volume as ‘kick-ass kosher adventures’ and adds that ‘Tidhar writes a sort of intensified supernatural action-surrealism that fair rattles along and is full of surprises’. I wrote that; I thought so; I think so still.