Every now and then, a reader finds an author who consciously strives to write A Novel of Great Significance. When a writer makes that powerful and audacious claim, a deep and powerful matrix of setting, time, mood, and human verity must be found within the pages. It doesn’t hurt to unearth a nearly unused literary structure, one which was born (and perhaps died) in the arms of Pushkin. Nor does it hurt the author to have functioned at the top level of his art for over two decades. . Unholyland, by Aidan Andrew Dun, is an epic poem made up of approximately 250 sonnets of a form unused since Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Speaking with a level of lyricism that bears comparison to Onegin, Unholyland depicts forbidden love and a millennium-old legacy against the backdrop of one of the most intractable scenarios in human history, the Israel-Palestine conundrum.
For those who have encountered Onegin mainly through Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera, a brief review of plot might serve. Set in Tsarist Russia, the archetypal novel in verse follows the dissolute title character, a wealthy twentysomething heritor of the Russian equivalent of a grand Southern plantation, where slaves are replaced with serfs. Onegin befriends a poet, Lensky, not yet twenty, who links Onegin to two sisters, one of whom falls desperately in love with Onegin, but whose passions are rebuffed coldly. Onegin and Lensky stumble over each other’s intentions at a country ball that parodies the social schedules of the idle Russian rich. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel. Through further mishap, the duel comes off, and Onegin slays Lensky.
Onegin drifts around the world, never able to overcome his guilt. He winds up in Moscow, where he encounters the younger sister. She is now married to an elderly prince.Onegin tries to undo what he had done by spurning her years ago. The girl, now a woman even more beautiful than she had been as a youth, now spurns Onegin to remain true to her husband, while blaming him for the loss of their one opportunity.
Mr. Dun assures me that the saga of Unholyland continues, so that full plot comparisons are premature. To understand what Dun is attempting, it is important to see why Onegin towers over much of nineteenth-century literature, and why the setting of Unholyland provides an epochal parallel.
The character of Onegin represents the beginning of the end of the idle rich. The historical fact of the French Revolution and the upheavals in Europe that paused bloodily in 1848 certainly impacted all the nineteenth century novelists, especially the Russians (think Chekhov and his play The Cherry Orchard). Onegin’s desolation at the end of the novel represents the inherent purposelessness of wealth qua wealth, and Lensky’s martyrdom strikes me as the temporary subjugation of the will of the people that Karl Marx was already writing about. The girl, who we see later as a fully developed woman Tatyana, represents the truth and fidelity of the common man – a prototype for Marxian thought that would define the twentieth century.
Dun’s leading character, Moshe Rambam is the greightieth-great-grandson of the leading rabbi Rav Moshe Ben Maimon, known to history as Maimonides. There is no more famous figure in Jewish history than Maimonides, so the reader is warned against projecting any preconceived notions on his descendant. Moshe (usually called Moss in the novel) is a dreadlocked, pot-smoking, slingshot-rapping youth, about to be forced into his obligatory two years of military service. He crosses effortlessly into Palestinian youth culture, where oppression and poverty are the métier. This creates a paradox that seems more befitting of Lensky in the Russian novel-in-verse than of Onegin, but Dun’s vision of Israel reveals itself not as an old, crumbling estate that will fall of its own weight, but rather, an oppressor that will be just as liberated as the oppressed when the state of oppression ends. Rambam’s slightly older Palestinian best friend Rayyan never turns against Rambam, but the tension from Rayyan’s people’s occupation by the Rambam’s people grips this reader as a second skin while reading – a shadow of foreboding. Still, the image of a scion of power reaching out and trying to blend with the powerless is almost a trope, having featured prominently since Victor Hugo’s fluid use of power and poverty in Les Misèrables.
The critical three-day period occurs on the first days of the Hebrew month of Nisan, on the Passover festival, in which Jews commemorate the Exodus from slavery to freedom. Dun leaves the Biblical reference more or less unexploited; he’s an artist, not a demagogue, but the irony is not lost on the reader. Moss, as Moshe is known colloquially throughout the book (except when he faces certain death at a Palestinian nightclub, where his fluency in Arabic and his Mediterranean features allow him to pass as Musa), is nearly killed as he crosses over to Palestine, and is rescued by Rayyan’s sister. In any other setting, and in less inspired hands, what follows would not be exceptional. Girl saves boy. Girl heals boy. Girl falls in love with other boy. First boy is set up to meet second girl. They fall in love. Will they live happily ever after? But nothing is certain, not even love, under the shadow of occupation. I will make two further literary references, and in these two references, the detectives among you will find a spoiler. Therefore, I will not annotate these: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (cited by Moss Rambam in the text) and John Singleton’s 1991 drama Boyz in the Hood.
The structure of the sonnets that comprise this novel and Pushkin’s work is three quatrains with contrasting rhyme schemes ABAB, CCDD, EFFE, and a concluding rhymed couplet. Unlike Pushkin, who stuck strictly to iambic pentameter in Russian, Dun allows for excellent bleedthrough of the “slingshot hip-hop” resistance culture of the West Bank. Liberating the stanzas of the strict rhythmic leg-irons allows the poetry to dance when this is called for, such as in the following description of Jalila, the sixteen-year-old leader of the Slingshot Hip-Hop movement:
When I first heard her in Shatila
I realized she was a healer,
a poet and a peacemaker,
a woman and an earthshaker.
She’s what the Arab world’s waiting for…
I feel a shift from the first couplet (itself a pivot from the more classical verse that preceeds it) to the second couplet, which calls forth Jimi Hendrix to this reader. The actual raps are Dun’s imagination of the English translation over the Palestinian background music. This flexibility might have been unacceptable in Pushkin’s time, but it is mandatory in ours.
Dun ranges from the rough graphics of the above quatrain to verses that sound more like the Song of Songs, like this description of the heroine Jalila:
To some she brings velvet fruition,
to some, disastrous attrition,
the wearing down of all their dreams.
Or how about this couplet, and its simile across three thousand years:
Nazareth: Mobile phones, like ears of barley,
buzz with life in her underbelly.
I was captured by Dun’s lyricism from the first page, but never more so than at the first idyll between Moss and Jalilah. I quote the sonnet in its entirety, and an analog from the Song of Songs:
The atmospheric garden pleases;
it’s like being on another planet.
Here’s a waterfall that freezes;
here’s a fruiting pomegranate
where – through the dark – a nightingale
sang last night its lyric tale.
Ah! Here they are, sharing a joke
it seems, by a Palestinian oak.
Jalilah wears her black-fringed headshawl,
Moss has let his dreads hang loose.
Dove-calls seem to plead and seduce.
Now they wander by the waterfall
talking where a rainbow – over ferns –
makes a promise, while cool silver churns.
And Song of Songs Chapter 4: 10-17 (tr. Chabad.org):
10: My beloved raised his voice and said to me, “Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away;
11: For behold, the winter has assed, the rain is over and gone.
12. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13. The fig tree has put forth its green figs, and the vines with their tiny grapes have given forth their fragrance; arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.
14. My dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the coverture of the steps, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely.
15. Seize for us the foxes, the little foxes, who destroy the vineyards, for our vineyards are with tiny grapes.”
16. My beloved is mine, and I am his, who grazes among the roses.
17. Until the sun spreads, and the shadows flee, go around; liken yourself, my beloved, to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds, on distant mountains.
I found that the more intense the plot became, the less tight the poetry. By Chapter 7 (out of eight), I found myself given a green light to speed through, and this disappointed me. Dun’s poetic forces surge back in time to create a dramatic climax, right when it is needed. Even on the very last page, Dun gives us a plot twist in verse. I would imagine that, as the author of a novel in verse that was premiered at Royal Albert Hall, Dun is well in control of the theatrical elements in his writing.
Unholyland is not for the passive reader. This is not simple art. It’s not even an uncluttered story of young love. It’s not a one-sided political screed; not any apologetic for either side. Dun calls out the British, the Turks, and the Zionists, and (do NOT read a comparison or edit out this parenthetical note!!!) the Nazis without equating anyone to anyone else This is dangerous, challenging reading; don’t look here for a right or a wrong. There is an ample, excellently documented preface and good enough endnotes to establish Dun’s own point of view. In the end, the art will have to stand on its own. This reviewer believes that it will do just that, long after the inevitable firestorm disappears like sand in a flash flood.