Coincidentally, just after writing about my visit to Kibbutz Ein Harod, I picked up a library copy of Amos Kenan’s 113-page novella The Road to Ein Harod, published in Hebrew in 1984 and in English (translated by M. Hutzpit for Al Saqi Books, in London) two years later. The book really doesn’t have much to say about Ein Harod or the kibbutz movement. In fact, The Road to Ein Harod is a surreal, savage and satirical dystopian misadventure, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or other post-apocalyptic escape narratives.
In this case, the book’s first-person narrator, an older Jewish soldier who fought in the War of 1948, describes tuning his radio late one night and catching an urgent message that begins: “This is Radio Free Ein Harod calling.” We never find out exactly what has happened, but the narrator (and later the reader) figure out that some sort of military coup d’etat has taken over Israel and is enforcing a brutal martial law in the midst of civil war. Enemies of the coup, including artists and intellectuals, are being rounded up or shot on sight.
The narrator eludes capture, hides in his attic, swims to Jaffa, and then begins a long journey by night in the seemingly futile hope of evading army patrols and reaching his family and what he believes is the last outpost of democracy and resistance: Kibbutz Ein Harod. On the way, he befriends an Arab refugee—they decide to delay killing each other and cooperate instead—and captures a brigadier general and his mistress as hostages. (One of the odd jokes is that almost every male character is named Rafi: the narrator, the general, the general’s driver, even the Arab’s Hebrew code name.)
Throughout his nightmarish, shadowy midnight journey of cat and mouse, the narrator reflects on his days as a soldier in the War of Independence—he still knows how to kill when necessary—and the legacy of violence that haunts his life and his homeland. “Yes,” he thinks, “the punishment we inflict on the victim of our oppression is to lead him to oppress others and to deprive him of awareness of it.”
Their escape route leads north toward Megiddo, the biblical ground zero of Armageddon—the end of the world—and an archaeological site just south of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek. But before they can cross the Jizreel Valley, the refugees are cornered within a labyrinth of caverns by the sinister General of the Northern Command, a leader of the coup who shares with General Rafi an embarrassing secret about their time as captive young soldiers together in Syria. And then the book gets even weirder.
The General of the Northern Command takes the narrator back to a secret hideout, like the command-post of a super-villain, where he plans to enact his master plan (based on the writings of the “great military theorist Amos Kenan”) to go back in time and change Jewish history by refighting old wars and preventing the destruction of the Temple and the Spanish Inquisition. “The essential point is that History cannot be corrected after the fact,” he tells the narrator. “If you want to change the course of history, what you have to do is not foresee it in advance but fuck it from behind, in accordance with the doctrine of retroaction.”
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, the narrator escapes, and everyone except for him ends up dead in the dust. All that is left is for him to complete his journey to Ein Harod. But as he crosses the Jezreel Valley, he sees no evidence of the region’s famous settlements: “No Balfuria and no Merhavya. No town of Afula. On the mountain opposite, where Lower Galilee begins, I could not see the slopes of Nazareth. No Tel Yosef and no Geva. No Road of the Rule, not a single eucalyptus tree, not a single water tower. What could it all mean?”
All he can see is evidence of the natural, not the human, world: giant plane-trees, oleanders, willows, prairie, tracks of wild boar and panther. Not even the “derelict foliage” that signals a former settlement, even one thousands of years gone, like mallow, nettles, fennel, alder, thistles or thorn bushes. Just this land before time. “Ein Harod is the place where it all began,” he says, “and I knew how to get to the beginning. But there was nothing there.”
He stands on this empty, prehistoric plain, and then the book ends with its haunting last few lines:
When I turned to look behind me the world had gone dark.
I don’t know if I’m blind. I can hear no sound, and I don’t know if I’m deaf.
I remember that beautiful song I learned as a kid: How happy we are in Ein Harod.
Now at last I’m happy: I’m in Ein Harod.
The ending echoes the first words of the book, in which the narrator tells us: “I kept thinking about that lovely song: ‘The road to the kvutza is not short, neither is it long.’” His journey begins with a kibbutz song and ends with a kibbutz song.
The Road to Ein Harod is a strange story that resists easy interpretation. But I think it’s important that is was published in 1984 (the title of Orwell’s famous fascist dystopia), seven years after the right-wing Likud had taken power and the influence of the kibbutz movement (and the left-leaning Labour party) was in serious decline.
For the narrator, Kibbutz Ein Harod stands for the fading hope of a distant past—a path not taken for his beloved country. His dangerous journey back to Ein Harod represents a dream of returning to that past, a chance to begin again from scratch, to rewrite history in a narrative of peace and sharing rather than (as the General of the Northern Command desires) one of total war and absolute victory. Ein Harod—the first kibbutz—becomes a symbol of hope and reconciliation and refuge. But in Amos Kenan’s sly, satirical, deeply troubling vision of the near-future, all such hope may be nothing but a comforting mirage. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the book’s symbol of hope—Ein Harod—was also driven apart by an ideological “civil war” of its own.
Kenan died last summer, and is buried on Kibbutz Einat. As his biography makes clear, he had a complex, controversial and highly creative relationship to Israel’s political and artistic development—much like the kibbutz movement itself.