Culture & Conversation

Inspired by a Canadian Backpacker


Blue Metropolis opened on Monday, April 20th and runs until April 26th. Gina Roitman attended this year’s Mervin and Avriel Butovsky Memorial Lecture held on April 20, 2015. 

Addressing a large and rapt audience at the Jewish Public Library, Israeli author Eshkol Nevo shared the journey he undertook while writing his latest novel to be translated into English, Neuland.

An award-winning writer, Eshkol Nevo owns and co-manages the largest private creative writing school in Israel and is considered the “godfather” of many upcoming young Israeli writers. He has published novels (which have all been bestsellers), short stories and nonfiction.

At the lecture held in collaboration with Blue Metropolis, Nevo revealed that the ideas for Neuland began when he was backpacking in Guatemala in the 1990s. For many Israelis, travelling becomes a rite of passage after their two-year stint in the army, often driven by a need to break loose from the restrictions of living in a country hemmed in on all sides. And perhaps, Nevo posits, a way for Israelis to truly discover their country by viewing it from the outside.

“Once away,” he says, “your vision grows clearer.”

The spark for Neuland, he confided, came from a man he encountered in Guatemala, a sad, Canadian backpacker in his 60s. Backpacking, as the author says, is a youthful way to travel so he was intrigued by this man. Unable to extract the man’s story, Nevo began to fabricate one.

Eshkol Nevo’s themes often revolve around home, love, loss and community. In Neuland, everybody is searching. Nevo began writing a story about a heroic veteran of the Yom Kippur War so distraught at the loss of his wife that he leaves Israel, where everything raises a memory of her, and heads for South America. In a twist, it is the younger generation looking for the older one as the man’s son Dori sets out to retrieve his wandering father. In South America, Dori meets a woman with whom he falls madly in love. Inbar too has left Israel and a boyfriend, and is getting as far as she can from her mother, an academic living in Berlin who is working on a thesis about the Wandering Jew.

By Nevo’s own account, not only does Dori fall in love with Inbar but Nevo himself finds her so intriguing that her story becomes woven into that of the wandering father and son. But there is one more pivotal character: Inbar’s beloved grandmother, another story that presented itself as irresistible to the author. Based on Nevo’s own grandmother (to whom he dedicated the book), it follows a young woman’s departure from pre-war Warsaw, headed for Palestine by a ship that arrives in Haifa on a fateful day: September 1, 1939. In Israel, the passengers of that ship are called the Pre-Survivors.

Nevo, whose novels are very successful abroad, has received the Book Publishers Association’s Gold and Platinum Prizes four times, the FFI-Raymond Wallier Prize (Paris, 2008), the ADEI-WIZO Prize (Italy, 2011) and the Steimatzky Prize twice, for Neuland (2012) and for The Lost Solos (2014). Homesick was a finalist for the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (UK, 2009), and World Cup Wishes was a finalist for the Kritikerpreis der Jury der Jungen Kritiker (Austria, 2011).

Eshkol Nevo, grandson of the late Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, is a masterful teller of tales who finds his stories in his characters. And like his characters, his story wanders the world encountering Israelis and the longing for home wherever they are.

A regular contributor to Rover, Gina Roitman is a biographer, editor, and author of the highly-acclaimed short story collection Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth.  She is also the co-producer and subject of the award-winning documentary film, My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me. 

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