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Review: I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant
Penguin, 2000. 260 pp. $24

In this disturbing, insightful novel, Linda Grant portrays the Jews who worked to create the state of Israel in 1946-47 as anything but heroes. They’re gangsters and lowlifes who somehow managed to survive the Holocaust; longtime German and Austrian residents who look down on their Eastern European brethren; arrogant revolutionaries; terrorists; and displaced people who think the world owes them a favor.

British paratroopers enforce a curfew in Tel Aviv, 1946-47 (Courtesy United Kingdom Government, via Wikimedia Commons)

British paratroopers enforce a curfew in Tel Aviv, 1946-47 (Courtesy United Kingdom Government, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mind you, the British trying to enforce their mandate over Palestine are vicious anti-Semites, and worse. They believe that they had it tough during the world war, can’t decide whom they despise more, Arab or Jew, and express choleric amazement that their inferiors could dare rebel against them, the world’s most practiced colonialists. The only participants in this novel who get a free pass–or almost do–are the Arabs, aside from a rare bombing or sniping, referred to but never shown.

No doubt, the mainstream, heroic narrative about the founding of Israel (or anywhere else) needs correction. Nevertheless, this novel goes too far the other way, so much so that it offends me, though I share some of the author’s political views. Like her, I’m ashamed that my Israeli coreligionists oppress Palestinians today (of which I’ve seen glimpses, first-hand). Yet I reject her blanket portrayal of Israel’s founders as either misguided hoodlums or blind idealists, or of Jews as fractious and arrogant, or that any nation born in war is doomed to fight perpetually. War has always made nations, whether we’re talking about the United States, Serbia, or the Netherlands. How and when those nations make war afterward is another story, but in I Lived in Modern Times, Israel’s path seems predetermined and entirely of Jewish making, which is more than a little neat.

That said, Grant has written a provocative, illuminating story about identity. Her heroine, Evelyn Sert, is a young woman born in England of Eastern European Jewish parents. Through her British passport, she takes ship for Palestine in 1946, pretending to be Christian so as to evade the rules against Jewish immigration. She’s heard of the wonderful experiment that will build a new nation according to modern principles, in which a Jew may find a life without fear and ideals to live by.

But reality doesn’t measure up. First, she tries a kibbutz, whose socialist roots and practices (including free love) appeal to her, only to find that the heat and the hard labor wear her down, and the men treat her like a slab of meat. She settles in Tel Aviv, resuming her former occupation as a hairdresser, but her best customers are British women whose husbands are the police, one of whom believes she recognizes Evelyn from the boat.

So Evelyn splits herself. She dyes her hair blond, calls herself Priscilla Jones, and goes to the beach with these women and their husbands, listening to their diatribes. Her Jewish boyfriend, a mysterious chap who speaks fluent Hebrew, gives her the passion she’s always wanted but insists that she know her place as a woman. This poses a struggle for Evelyn, who has other ambitions and is more literate, smarter, and deeper than he is. Yet Johnny, the name she knows him by, also protects her, giving her a false passport that keeps her safe from the police as Priscilla Jones–for a while. It’s his other underground activities she’s nervous about.

As her openly Jewish self, however, the German and Austrian emigrés, though they open up a cultural world she’s missed since leaving England, also condescend to her as an ignorant bumpkin from Eastern Europe. That wears on her, but even worse, Evelyn tires of what she calls “the 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.

Like the contortions of self that Evelyn submits to as an immigrant to a bewildering, divided land, these passages about the social pecking order based on birth or suffering hit the mark. However, after a while, you begin to wonder why Evelyn is so passive, why she doesn’t stand up to her lecturers or simply walk away. It’s particularly jarring toward the end, when she allows someone to bully her into an action I don’t believe she’d ever take. Unlike the case in some historical novels, which rewrite history to achieve the desired result, I Lived in Modern Times takes the opposite route, putting the heroine in a false position to evade an inconvenient historical event. It doesn’t work.

As with its protagonist, this novel’s contortions come to a peculiar end.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.