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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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A dark, cynical look at life in the army

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Shani Boianjiu during her stint in the army

Stories about soldiers generally tend to be either farcical MASH-style parodies or dark, serious “war is hell” types.

Budding Israeli writer Shani Boianjiu’s disjointed debut novel about three Israeli female soldiers, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Hogarth), out next month, definitely leans toward the latter.

At the start of the book, Yael, Avishag and Lea are three friends graduating high school and anxious about their upcoming compulsory stint in the Israel Defence Forces.

They attend school in a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village of 82 homes on the border with Lebanon built to “Jewdify” the Galilee in 1983.

The girls hate the village where cellphone reception is almost non-existent, where missiles fall from the sky as they have done “since always,” and where most people’s fates are tied to the “company that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that make airplanes.”

Yael has a crush on Avishag’s brother, Dan, who dies while playing Russian roulette – the first of several men who die premature and violent deaths in this book. (Not to accuse the author of misandry, but the male characters in this book tend to be shallow, easily-discarded sex toys for the women. One horrific segment in the end, especially, sheds a rather bad light on male Israeli soldiers.)

After boot camp, Yael is assigned to a border post near Hebron, where young Arab children steal everything, including the fence that surrounds the camp.

Avishag joins the only combat infantry unit for women and is assigned to the Sinai, where she spends her days flirting and watching refugees sneak across the Egyptian border on her computer screen.

Lea works at a Hebron checkpoint, monitoring Palestinian day workers crossing into Israel. She belongs to the blue-bereted military police, which she hates, and is the least satisfying of all possible assignments. “It was a unit designed for stupid, poor people.”

Army life is seen mostly as a waste of time. “A numbing respite from the breathless race” of normal life, Lea thinks.

To pass the time, they sleep with their male colleagues, play pranks on one another or on civilians (one of the girls blindfolds an Arab man and pretends to shoot him), daydream and sunbathe on the hot sand while injecting themselves with frozen IV to keep cool.

Despite this being mostly a dark novel, it’s not without its share of wit and parody. In one chapter, Avishag lies naked on one of the watchtowers on the Israeli-Egyptian border, while on the other side an Egyptian soldier is caught with his pants down, using only his left hand to watch her through binoculars.

This becomes a diplomatic incident once the world press gets a hold of the story.

Boianjiu, who was born in 1987 in Kfar Vradim, a small town similar to the one the girls in this book live in, has been published in several magazines. At 25, she is the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award.

She is undoubtedly a talented writer but on this, her first novel, her unstructured writing is in need of some direction.

There are several moments of brilliance, such as the aforementioned Diplomatic Incident chapter, or the tongue-in-cheek Means of Suppressing Demonstrations, in which a small group of protesting Palestinians demands that Lea’s unit shoots them with real bullets in order to attract the attention of the press. [This chapter was published as a short story in The New Yorker and inspired the magazine to launch a parody-writing contest]

Possibly the best chapter is the deeply moving People That Don’t Exist. In it, Avishag, who has just taken a pill to abort the fetus inside her, watches on her computer screen as Egyptian border soldiers shoot a Sudanese man as he leaps over the border fence. As the fetus inside her slowly dies, she raises her hand and touches the wounded man on the green monitor in front of her. “It is cold and far and real. I pretend to touch the child I’ll never meet, I pretend I don’t exist. For that while only, it gets to be only her.”

Meanwhile, in a shifting point of view, we see what the Sudanese man is thinking as he lies on the ground, feeling the contact that Avishag is making with him on her screen. “I could swear someone was touching me. Someone’s hand, I couldn’t see it, but I could still feel it on my shoulder…”

Powerful, touching stuff.

But this ever-changing point of view is also the biggest problem with this book. The point of view switches from one chapter to the next between that of each of the three girls. Because they all speak with that same detached, cynical, youthful voice, it makes it hard to distinguish which narrator is speaking. This gets annoying really quickly.

The women return home from their stint in the army noticeably scarred. One takes anti-depressants, one travels the world and another keeps an Arab man bound to a chair in the smaller bedroom of her “one-and-a-half” in Tel Aviv.  War is not good for children, Boianjiu seems to be saying.

The plot of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is disjointed, a series of vignettes that could each possibly be published separately as short stories. (Her first published story, The Sound of All Girls Screaming, in Vice magazine, is also a chapter from the novel).

But as a narrative whole it lacks cohesion. Several of the chapters include long-winded digressive flashbacks that might work fine in shorter fiction but as a novel slow the pace down. In fact, perhaps, it might have been better if it was published as a collection of thematically linked short stories.

Despite these problems, there’s a lot of promise in Boianjiu’s debut novel. The author’s stream-of-consciousness, conversational prose can make the dark and sombre scenes witty and ironic.

Boianjiu is an exciting, youthful writer, not afraid to take on heavy themes, and there’s no doubt we’ll be hearing from her again. A Hebrew version of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is slated to be published in Israel later next year. 

 

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