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Israel in the Universe

The Friday Review of Books

Liel Leibovitz
December 27, 2013

One of the central tragedies of our lives is that there are more books out there than we’d ever have time to read. But we’re not going gently into that good night: Each Friday, Liel Leibovitz will be reviewing a title lost in the never-ending book pile, robbed of well-merited attention, or deserving of a second look.

Netanya, by Dror Burstein (Todd Hasak-Lowy, trans.)

What’s missing from Hebrew literature, the narrator of Dror Burstein’s Netanya muses while lying on a park bench in Tel Aviv and looking heavenward, is the land. Not, mind you, The Land, that physical manifestation of the Zionist ideology with its kibbutzim and its border skirmishes and its tanned and armed sons, but the land, fossils and rocks, geological processes, gravity and galaxies. “How strange,” he sighs, “that in Hebrew literature, and this includes the literature of the Hebrew Enlightenment, there isn’t even a single trilobite.”

Thus begins a strange and wonderful book that veers wildly between the minor keys of the narrator’s personal life and the cosmic crescendos of the universe itself. That the two are connected is hardly a new or radical assertion, but Burstein’s approach to his theme is both literally and figuratively stellar: he believes that we are all united not in some flimsy metaphorical way, but through a dazzlingly complex set of interplanetary circumstances that had somehow come together to create life in the universe as we know it. We are, then, galactically speaking, all part of the same oneness.

In the hands of a lesser writer, such a point of departure could easily have led into some New Age quicksand, but Burstein puts in the work and keeps the world solid. Like few others before him—Proust is the exception that comes to mind—he tosses away the crutches of plot and describes minute occurrences like a night on a bench in fine detail and with a dizzying commitment to capturing the inner rhythms of our thoughts and recollections. When these thoughts veer towards the scientific, as they do for much of the novel, Burstein, like Proust, parades around insights and theories, revealing himself to be an astute analyst of the natural world. When they turn into memories, he tells stories that are intimate and touching. By the time the sun rises and the narrator departs his bench, we are convinced that we’re not only in the universe, but that the universe is also very much in us. Which, in a literary tradition born when the first pioneers arrived to assert their will over the land and reshape it into the utopia of their dreams, is a touching and significant achievement, a move towards the real.

Burstein’s writing neatly captures the ebbs and flows of an erudite and intimate internal monologue, and Todd Hasak-Lowy deserves praise for his masterful work of translation. Any other encomia fall short: the only way to experience Netanya is to emulate its narrator, lie back, gaze at the stars, and succumb to the gravitational pull that tugs at our minds and our souls.

Check out the rest of the reviews here.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.