Birth of a Nation

Even an emerging utopia can't erase the past.

When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant. Dutton, $23.95.

Linda Grant's most recent, prize-winning novel takes place in 1946. Evelyn Sert (surname concocted by her dead mother because it reminded her of nowhere) enters Palestine through the port of Haifa. She stares in awe at exotic trees, cypress and olive and pine, while copying fellow passengers as they murmur "The Holy Land," though she realizes, "we were each of us seeing something entirely different" and for the most part unformed.

"Scratch a Jew," Evelyn says, "and you've got a story." Evelyn's story, When I Lived in Modern Times, is one of a 20-year-old chameleon fresh from war-torn England entering a land of the unknown. It's a fascinating story told without sentiment. Evelyn's is a unique tale surrounding the first formative days of the nation that would be known as Israel, the strange and exotic land that became host to the world's fleeing Jews, who "told themselves they were home."

Evelyn's confusion over her own identity parallels the national chaos. In 1946, Britain rules Palestine while British overlords sneer at its people. Russians experiment with communism on the kibbutz. Dispossessed Germans and East European Jews eke out a living as well as they can while survivors of Nazi death camps pass through like ghosts. Palestinian Jews resist the British with bombs and kidnappings. Amid an overwhelming preoccupation with getting on with life, being part of the modern world, and a desire to give up the past, uncertain hopes and dreams collide.

Evelyn begins her life in Palestine on a kibbutz. She briefly falls under the spell of a Russian leader, Meier, with a predilection for teen-aged girls and a tyrannical focus on socialist ideals. Meier believes Arabs are "a hopeless case" because "all their alliances are based not on the proper opposition between left and right but blood ties and age-old feuds, pride, shame." Ultimately, however, his own enthusiasm wanes. He tries to "regain the rapture" of the Bolshevik rebellion only to find it impossible because "the present becomes the past" and the past leaves as he speaks.

The kibbutz provides Evelyn with a rude introduction to sex. In two weeks she takes six lovers, and wonders why she feels "like a lump of meat when a young and thrusting sexual organ was inside." Evelyn's initial eagerness for communal life turns into boredom as she discovers that "it was possible for utopia to induce ennui." She hitches a ride to Tel Aviv to continue her "search for the liberation of the spirit."

Through Evelyn's eyes, Tel Aviv, named after a German utopian novel, exists as a wonder in the desert, "an entire city without a past." Evelyn fairly bursts with visionary ardor as she describes

"the newest place in the world, a town created for the new century by its political and artistic ideologues: the socialists and the Zionists, the atheists and the feminists who believed with a passion that it was the 'bon ton' to be in the forefront of social progress and in a place where everything was new and everything was possible, including a kind of rebirth of the human spirit."

Little does she know that from this haven she will barely escape alive.

Evelyn quickly discovers that the British are in control. Being a woman who thinks on her feet, she dyes her hair and becomes Pricilla Jones. She needs an occupation, so voilà, she transmogrifies into a hairdresser, something she vaguely picked up from her mother.

Then Johnny, whose real name we never know, assumes a dominant role in her life. Little by little, she deduces his real intentions. He is a terrorist and she has unwittingly become enlisted as a spy.

Linda Grant, in this, her second novel, proves herself to be in command of her medium. She maintains the ability to make a point without driving it to death. The distinctive voices of the characters present multiple sides of the issues. They may or may not bear credence, but fortunately, that is up to the reader to decide.

When I Lived in Modern Times may be read on many levels. Successful as a coming-of-age novel, a period piece and a mysterious spy novel, it is also largely a novel of ideas. Evelyn eventually learns the folly of trying to erase a past. She also develops a passion for the city that greatly influences the rest of her life.