Books - Exmouth 1
This group meets on the Second Tuesday of the month.
Evelyn Sert makes her way, by somewhat dubious means, to Palestine in the spring of 1946. She is an idealist and wishes to become involved in the development of the new Jewish State. She arrives at a time of confusion and violence against the British administration that is perceived as an occupying power; the Jews in Palestine are in a hurry to create a State that is modern and forward-looking. Evelyn discovers that it’s not going to be straightforward. The people whom she meets are still hidebound by their background; apart from Johnny, who looks only to ‘…the future, Evelyn, keep your eyes fixed on the future …’, unaware that his outlook is based on a 2000 year-old cultural longing. Evelyn has a romantic idea about the new society that is being created, but comes to discover that there are crooks as well as heroes in Jewish Palestine.
Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times follows Evelyn as she meets an eclectic mix of people. She starts in a kibbutz that is organised on communist lines by Jews who had left farms in Eastern Europe and Russia after the Russian Revolution. They saw the opportunity of creating an egalitarian Jewish society without the compromises of living in Europe, but they were still peasants at heart. Evelyn had been born and lived in London and found herself unable to cope with the grinding work and basic living conditions. She took a lift from Johnny to Tel Aviv and found a growing city that seemed to be predominantly inhabited by German Jews who had left Germany and Austria ahead of the takeover by the Nazis. Although building a new city, they still hankered after the more cultured society of Weimar Germany.
Evelyn falls in love with Johnny and discovers he is fighting for the Zionist cause. She adopts the name Mrs Jones and takes a job in a hairdresser’s shop. There she meets the wives of British officials, mainly policemen, and with her name and hair dyed blonde, she gains their trust. Yet, even though they display their colonial attitudes and casual racism, Evelyn still finds that she is more at ease in their company since it is familiar. She supplies Johnny with addresses of clients, which results in one of the policemen being abducted. One of the police, Inspector Bolton, comes to suspect her. Johnny arranges for her to go into hiding, where she comes across some rather unsavoury characters in the terrorist organisation.
Having avoided capture and, realising that Johnny himself has been either arrested or killed, she returns to Tel Aviv. She meets the Boltons who gently abduct her and she finds herself being flown out of Palestine to Cairo alongside British families, who are being pulled out ahead of the Mandate being handed over to the United Nations. She makes her way to Nice where she meets her future husband. The book ends with Evelyn returning to Israel when she is much older, after the death of her husband and having lived most of her life in America and England.
The group very much enjoyed reading When I Lived in Modern Times. It is written in Evelyn’s voice and in an almost conversational style. Linda Grant creates considerable atmosphere in her descriptions of people, the stifling heat of summer, the almost blinding white of 1940’s Tel Aviv. When Evelyn returns as an old woman, she is saddened to find that the area where she had lived is shabby and down-at-heel. At the airport, she had seen ‘…black shadows of men, bearded, black-headed, black-clad.’ These were the new immigrants from New York, representatives ‘… from a forgotten crease in the past.’ Linda Grant makes no attempt to whitewash her characters. Some of the Jews display quite ugly racism and superiority, particularly towards the Arabs. Yet, as she is returning to Tel Aviv, Evelyn’s taxi driver says when talking about the conflict with the Palestinians ‘The only people who get to sit at the peace table are the ones who made the war.’
There are one or two errors of fact. There was no Jewish Brigade as such until late 1944 and Palermo was taken from the land by the Americans. Also, the people in the hairdresser’s talk about the bitter cold in Europe before Christmas 1946, but the real winter weather didn’t start until late January 1947; up till then, it had been quite mild. There were questions about why the Boltons saw fit to remove her from Palestine and why she didn’t return as soon as she could. However, these errors and questions didn’t affect the group’s enjoyment of the book. It is a novel set in a historical time and place unfamiliar to most people who are not Jewish and that, even in a brand-new country, the past is always there.
July – Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan