Havaya newzealandit (“A New Zealand Experience”) by Shifra Horn
Olamot Travel Books (Hebrew), Am Oved, NIS 75 Reviewed by YOSSI KLEIN
Here are some facts compiled by author Shifra Horn for those wishing to escape the hell that is the Middle East for the paradise of New Zealand: In New Zealand, parents beat their children, and the locals frighten tourists (there was a time when they even ate them) and despise foreigners, Jews in particular. They justify their anti-Semitism by pointing to Israel’s policies in the territories. They’re alcoholics and misers, they take cover behind a ridiculous veil of political correctness, and they contend with stampedes of millions of sheep that descend upon them like flatulence. Horn offers praise, however, for New Zealand’s rich flora, its beautiful birdlife and its clean air.
In “A New Zealand Experience,” the author is modest in revealing the circumstances of her trip and in divulging details of her day-to-day life and interactions with her neighbors. There are moments in the book where her “significant other,” a mysterious character named Peter, makes a cameo, utters a line or two, then disappears immediately.
Horn reminds me of a certain Mrs. S. who, years ago, was a thorn in my mother’s side. Every time she visited, my mother would go on high alert before undertaking an impressive, wide-scale cleaning operation. Mrs. S. notices everything, my mother said. It was impossible to slip even one dust bunny by her; once she had noticed it, she would report its existence quickly and efficiently for public consumption.
Judging by the photo on the book jacket, Horn seems to be a pleasant, affable woman. Judging by her text, however, she is Mrs. S. – or at the very least a foul-tempered Israeli woman, who looks at her surroundings suspiciously, with squinted eyes and a sneer and an expression of disgust. In the book’s foreword, she promises to expose “injustices, cracks, unpleasant secrets, wretched odors and dark corners” – a promise she fulfills. As proof, one can point to the titles of select chapters: “Eating human flesh,” “Why is it warmer for criminals in winter,” “Wasted days,” “The gangs of New Zealand” and, of course, “Who wants to live here?” After all, the writer chuckles, “New Zealanders believe they are living in the most perfect place on the face of the earth.”
Horn, who authored the best-selling “Shalom, Japan” (Maariv) – describing her impressions of that country while she lived there – is not gifted with a knack for description. In writing about the Maori war dance in New Zealand, for example, she says: “Even if I try to describe this in detail, I won’t be able to because it is accompanied by blood-curdling screams.” Her journalistic, matter-of-fact, dry, precise language gives the book a feel of a long article written especially for the Masa Aher travel magazine – and not one of its better efforts, at that. The book includes much historical information and many statistics, but too few depictions of the human side of these facts and figures.
The picturesque account of selecting a tree to plant in her garden is the kind of descriptiveness that is badly needed elsewhere. The story features a neighbor who is anxious over the fate of local flora, the mysterious “male companion,” who is mentioned briefly, and birds that swoop in in droves. It is clear that the chirping of the local birds is not to the author’s liking: “I mumbled something about them interrupting my sleep,” she writes, “and I threatened to go outside and strangle them.”
There is also a thorough, riveting description of the way in which locals recycle their garbage. The method involves precision and sheer ruthlessness, which by itself is enough to deter the average Israeli from settling in the country in question: The garbage is sorted in containers provided by the municipality, which are picked up once a week. Anyone who generates waste that exceeds the capacity of the containers is forced to live with it an extra week, or arrange for the garbage to be picked up for a fee.
Shifra Horn in New Zealand is certainly no Peter Mayle in Provence. She does not have the ability to accept the natives with humor, understanding or forgiveness. New Zealanders frighten her to the point where she wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley. And rugby, the national sport – “a pile of players stacked on top of one another in a mess” – bores her.
By reading the book one gets the impression that New Zealand would be a more pleasant place for the Israeli tourist if only it were devoid of people. Horn also faults local historians for failing to mention cases of cannibalism in their research. She also makes sure to remind Kiwi archaeologists that she herself took part in impressive excavations and digs of sites dating back thousands of years, while they go crazy uncovering sweet-potato fields that are but a few hundred years old. Foreigners’ greetings to her on the street are received suspiciously, and she wonders whether these people would have time to say hello to her if they were preoccupied with “security concerns,” as we are.
Toward the end, Horn includes a completely extraneous interview with legendary mountain-climber Sir Edmund Hillary (who died earlier this year). Fifty years after being the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, and after hundreds of interviews with journalists, along comes Horn, who forces him to answer a question that is truly rare in its originality: “What went through your mind when you understood that you actually did it?” There is also a recommendation for the Israeli who travels all the way to New Zealand and already misses his hummus.
Horn looks to shatter the myth of “New Zealand as paradise,” which has taken hold here for some reason. Debunking shady myths is a worthy endeavor so long as one presents the circumstances in which the myth grew to be what it is. Okay, the place is not paradise, but what is life there really like? Her writing is defensive, limited and shows that she lacks curiosity.
Horn fortifies herself behind an Israeli arrogance that passes judgment on the rest of the world, on the basis of how much benefit we can derive from it and how well we can acclimate ourselves to it. For all these reasons, this is a book for tourists who are interested (or at least they might have been until reading it) in visiting New Zealand. It is not a book for those wishing to discover new cultures as observed by a curious newcomer.
The above review first appeared in Ha’aretz and is republished with the permission of the author, Yossi Klein, a Ha’aretze journalist.
At this stage there are no plans to translate Havaya newzealandit into English.