Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Modern Times

'When I Lived in Modern Times' by Linda Grant was the year 2000 winner of the Orange Fiction Prize.

It follows on quite interestingly from 'Voluptuous Delights' that I reviewed a few weeks ago, in that it also deals with a politically and historically significant moment for the country concerned. In this case the country is Israel, or Palestine, depending on your point of view, and the year is 1946. I thought I knew quite a bit about the middle east and it's recent history, but this inside view of the birth of a nation was quite an eye-opener. I kept getting the feeling that the entire book was some kind of allegory; for the character searching for her own identity, for the birth of Israel as a political entity, and for the notion of the Jews and the Diaspora and their search for a homeland and an identity.

The story is told from the perspective of Evelyn, a young British Jewish girl, briefly through her childhood and the (second world) war until she sets off into the unknown world of Palestine. At the time it is a British protectorate struggling with the demands for immigration from holocaust survivors that the government is trying to prevent. Evelyn is a rootless person, with an unknown father and grandparents coming to Britain from eastern Europe, and a mother who provides love and security but no sense of belonging anywhere or to anything. 'Uncle Joe', her mother's boyfriend, supports them and pays for her education, but he has a real wife and children elsewhere and she grows up with a sense of being his "shadow family", a life lacking reality. She picks up some of his zionist politics, and after her mother's death he sends her off to a new world, but she has no real idea of why she is there or why she might belong. Evelyn enters the country pretending to be a christian tourist, then making her way to the Jewish Agency, whence she is placed in a kibbutz, an experience that is short-lived but seems to have quite a lasting impact. She ends up in a little flat, working as a hairdresser and with a boyfriend who turns out to be a terrorist. She adopts a new fake identity and begins to feed information about her affluent and important clients to Johnny (who's real identity is also a mystery). But she is really a very naive girl and when a local policeman becomes suspicious of her everything begins to fall apart, and as the political tension begins to rise she finds herself caught up in something more dangerous than she had imagined.

Really the politics is the main theme of the novel. From the kibbutz dwellers, to her neighbours in the block of flats, to the local Arab population, to her British customers and then the political activists who spirit her away from the authorities, all these people have their own view of what should be happening to Palestine, and all of them are at odds with the others. In fact the only point of view that you don't get is that of the orthodox 'religious' Jews, whom many of the immigrants seem to view as some kind of archaic oddity, not part of a new modern state. The story takes place in Tel Aviv, a place that sees itself as modern, rejecting the past, seeking a new future. It seems at odds with the essential historical nature of Judaism, because it is their past (both recent and more distant) that is driving the creation of Israel. And for the Jews, both religious and not, political and not, it is their historical suffering that is central to their experience and is what they expect the creation of the state of Israel to save them from:

"It was a country of so-what people. So-what you are cold and hungry? You want to know about cold and hunger? Let me tell you where I have been. I know cold and hunger. So-what you miss your mother? My mother was gassed. And my father and my grandparents and my sisters and brothers. So-what you want your boyfriend? My boyfriend was murdered by British soldiers. I was never going to outdo them. They had skins like elephant hides and they brandished their suffering at you like heavy clubs. They'd bash your brains out with those clubs if they could." (p.211)

It is the story that is important. It is Evelyn's story but it is also Israel's story. And when she finally returns, many years later, when an old woman, she reflects on what has changed, and what remains of the Israel she experienced:

"Look at it this way, we are the people of the Book. It is the first thousand years of Jewish history and though we have no second volume for the next two thousand years, each story a Jew tells is part of that book. We have no choice but to listen. Our history was in our story, for the Arabs of Palestine, it was the land. Without a story we're not jews. Without a land they're not just DP's (displaced persons), they're an abstract idea - a cause. That's not a human being. This is the great wrong we did them." (p.239)

I was concentrating so hard on the 'issues' that I paid much less attention to the writing, but it is a very well written book. The atmosphere, cultural, political and geographical, was rich in details and the cast of characters strong and authentic. The history and politics of Israel is a very complex subject and this is a brave attempt to incorporate them into a novel. A very challenging book, but in some ways it left me none the wiser. How do two so different political/religious/cultural groups coexist in such a small space? I guess there are no definitive answers to the many questions that you are left asking.


  1. Oh Gosh - you make this one sound so interesting as well. I've already got Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam on order from the library. I can't keep pace...

  2. It's ages since I've read this but you've reminded me what a wonderful writer Linda Grant is.

  3. This sounds amazing. I was just saying I wanted to learn more about the formation of Israel, and actually I think reading a work of fiction about it first will help me have a few points of reference when I start reading nonfictional accounts of it.


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