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Maror by Lavie Tidhar review – violence and corruption in Israel’s underbelly

From its inception, the noir novel has provided a suitably brutal critique of capitalism and modern statecraft. The first of its kind, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), depicted a midwest town where industrialists used gangsters to deal with organised labour, only to lose control of the violent forces they had unleashed. A stark tale based on the author’s own experience as a Pinkerton strikebreaker, it spawned a whole genre in which detectives manage crime rather than solve it.

Leading examples of such fractured narratives that reimagine a setting and its legacy through a glass darkly include James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica. In Lavie Tidhar’s Maror, the latest troubled topography to get the noir treatment is the state of Israel, in a sprawling epic set across four decades, and an audacious account of the underbelly of nation-building. Known for SF novels that provocatively push at the boundaries of genre, Israeli-born Tidhar now boldly employs noir with spectacular results.

We begin in Tel Aviv in 2003 with Avi Sagi, a drug-fuelled corrupt cop called to the scene of a car bombing used to execute a mafia hit. Already compromised and caught up in local gang feuds, Avi is drawn into the orbit of the enigmatic, Bible-quoting Chief Inspector Cohen, who occupies a rotten core of collusion between business, organised crime, politics and law enforcement. There is a bewildering level of violence and mayhem at the start, which seems at times a bit too hard-boiled. But then the dust settles and something truly fascinating begins to emerge.

We go back to the 1970s, to the genesis of Cohen’s nefarious career and how he cultivated the legitimate promotion of fellow officers in order to secure his own winding path to power. A murder investigation takes us into the progressive worlds of the kibbutz and the Israeli left, but the pressure to solve crime feeds a harsher realpolitik. A confession is beaten out of the wrong suspect, a serial killer goes free, and a mood of cynicism sets in.

From here Tidhar makes bold leaps in time and space in a broad narrative on the pragmatism of power. There are constant opportunities to be exploited amid ideological struggles, as visionaries become racketeers. In the West Bank in 1977 a female journalist tries to find who is behind a property scam in the occupied territories. “Crooks?” she asks, speculating on the nature of the perpetrators. “Much worse,” her interlocutor replies. “Idealists. Though you could be forgiven for confusing them.” In Beirut in 1982 what becomes significant for our protagonists is which faction controls the drugs and gun-running. As Benny, a kidnapped gangster, meditates on his fate, he muses: “Maybe Lebanon was just a turf war that got out of control.”

Drugs and guns then take us briefly to LA in 1987, during the explosion of the cocaine trade; and to Colombia in 1989, with Israeli mercenaries training Medellín cartel foot soldiers. Back in Tel Aviv in 1994, Benny reunites with fellow hostage and ex-KGB operative Alexei, now working for an émigré oligarch as the Russian mafia make their move on the promised land. Connections are made through chaos rather than conspiracy, but their consequences follow the grim logic of corruption. Tidhar uses real events to frame his multiple narratives, reaching an astonishing climax at a moment of true hope.

In 1995 the young Avi finds his own summer of love as a small-time ecstasy dealer at a music festival in the Negev desert, as Yitzhak Rabin prepares to sign the Oslo peace accord. In an MDMA trance Avi envisions a “new and different future” where he might avoid his terrible fate as one of Cohen’s bad lieutenants. But the festival ends in tragedy, Rabin is assassinated and everything collapses into darkness once more.

Maror are the bitter herbs eaten at Passover, and there are scriptural references throughout the book, not least from Cohen himself, who spouts chapter and verse. In the midst of his ecstasy trip Avi meets the serpent in Eden and sees Cohen as the “Great Priest of Israel”. Indeed, the very structure of the novel is somewhat biblical, more a series of books rather than one sequential story. Yet the real success here comes not in transcendence, but in bringing everything down to its fallen state. Tidhar maps out an amoral underworld where greed and control outweigh any ideology. It is an analysis that frees Israel from its curse of exceptionalism. It is a state like any other. Its particular problems are, in fact, universal. And the noir form excels in taking us to root causes: the corruption of power and the chaos that it engenders. Maror is a masterpiece of the sacred and the profane and, in using genre fiction so inventively, Tidhar has achieved a literary triumph.

Maror is published by Apollo (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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