By Yehoshua Kenaz, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Steerforth Press, 593 pages, $19.95.
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The existence of the Israeli army is the fact that, above all else, makes Israel different from all Jewish communities since the wars against Rome two millennia ago. The spirit, expertise, power and even the morality of Israel’s army are qualities that fascinate us as American Jews, for most of us know little of military life, being protected at home by a volunteer army that, truth be told, touches our existence very little. Israel’s army, in a sense, is more ours than our own. For all that, however, we know little about what this institution, which embodies so much of what Israel is about, is really like inside, and we are thrown back on heroic mystifications that are often only projections of our own vicarious fantasies. On this score, and on many others, we should be grateful for the appearance of “Infiltration,” an old-new novel by the eminent Israeli novelist Yehoshua Kenaz, which brings us inside this holy of holies of Israeli society.
Kenaz is one of Israeli literature’s best-kept secrets. He is of the same generation as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, but he is not the vocal public intellectual they are, and his fiction is quieter than theirs. A surprising amount of Kenaz’s work is available in English; in recent years Alan Lelchuk at Steerforth Press in Vermont has been bringing out beautiful editions of Kenaz’s stories. “Musical Moment,” for example, follows a boy through the rites of passage with an uncommon mixture of grace and unsentimentality. “Returning Lost Loves” is a slice-of-life novel of Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s that tracks the interlocking fates of a motley of characters who live in the same neighborhood. To my mind, Kenaz’s greatest achievement to date is “The Way to the Cats,” which appeared in Hebrew in 1991. It tells the story of a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher who is suddenly crippled by a fall and finds herself recuperating in a Tel Aviv old-age home. What first seems like deadly territory for interesting fiction becomes in fact a gripping story about human frailty and human freedom that manages as well to reflect on the moral and social contradictions in Israeli society.
Published in Hebrew in 1986, “Infiltration” unfolds on an army base early in the history of the Jewish state. The year is 1955: Jews from Arab lands are huddled in transit camps, Moshe Dayan has become chief of staff, Arab legionnaires are mounting deadly incursions into Jewish settlements and Israeli spies are being tortured in Syrian and Jordanian jails. Yet despite the keen awareness of the historical moment, the ordeal of basic training described in the novel does not differ materially from accounts of army life in other cultures. The young conscripts are shorn of their home ties and identities, segregated into a single-sex society and subjected to crushing discipline by sadistic sergeants who were failures in civilian life. Kenaz’s greatest stroke in putting together his novel is to place his platoon of conscripts on a special base for inductees who have minor disabilities that make them unsuitable for service in combat units. After basic training, these “jobniks,” in army parlance, will serve out their time ingloriously in clerical work. They are not the men who will conduct secret raids deep into Arab territory or rescue hostages from African airports.
Kenaz’s demythologizing of the army experience has nothing to do with the post-Zionist revisionism of the New Historians. Kenaz removes the heroic and the glamorous from the picture because they distract from what is really important about the army as a human experience: the effects of privation and humiliation on the inchoate psyches of boys who are turning into young men. The radically heterogeneous nature of Israeli society in these years puts its unique stamp on this ordeal. Like the soldiers in Norman Mailer’s World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead,” the training platoon at the center of “Infiltration” is made up of young men from very different ethnic backgrounds who are forced into close quarters together for the first time. There are the recent immigrants from North Africa, who are treated like primitives with an embarrassing folk culture; the sons of the cultured families of Jerusalem, who endure the army along the way to careers and professions; the German-speaking Holocaust survivor, whose inner life and history are of interest to no one, and the kibbutznik, who struggles unsuccessfully with the shame of being deemed unworthy of serving in one of the crack combat units.
Avner is the most interesting character in the novel precisely because he crosses some of these boundaries. He is from a large Sephardic family in Jerusalem, and each morning his mother would rise early to clean house for the Ashkenazic families of the city. Although Avner had little more than an elementary education, a job as a clerk in a music store gave him the chance to listen to classical records, and he fell in love with great music. To the snobs in the platoon he is a “black monkey who can whistle Prokoviev,” and he is all the more provocative for not conforming to his type. He is edgy and unpredictable and has a spark that has survived the harrying of army life, that “huge sausage machine that grinds everything up.” Most of all he is needy. He has an immense hunger for love in a world that can offer him very little. Loyal to his friends, he is also capable of shameless cowardice, as when, out of resentment, he secretly smashes the beloved guitar of one of the sensitive Jerusalem souls but then stands by as the defenseless clown of the platoon is beaten as the perpetrator.
“Infiltration,” like all of Kenaz’s writing, presents a grim picture of the possibilities of human transcendence. Yet, at the same time, Kenaz shows much more empathy with his characters than do either Oz or Yehoshua in their best, early fiction. Rather than piteously dissecting his characters’ delusions, he describes their needs and abasements, and he is not above poking fun at the very enterprise of novelistic observation. “Infiltration” is narrated by one of the recruits in the platoon, disparagingly nicknamed Malebbes, who tries to remain aloof from the ordeals of others and derives a perverted, aesthetic pleasure from observing them when they are humiliated and broken. But here Kenaz runs into trouble. The omniscient and empathic probings of the inner experience of these young men, which constitute the novelistic tissue of the book, are too fine to seem like the reflections of the limited narrator. Our orientation as readers is further confused when Kenaz drops the pretense of a narrator altogether to follow some of the characters when they leave the base to return home on furlough. And sometimes, alas, Kenaz follows his characters too closely. The book is long, and I often felt that Kenaz might have managed the same degree of psychological acuity in something less than 600 pages.
Despite these problems, “Infiltration” is moving and fascinating. As an American Jewish man who faced the darkest hours of his 19th year in choosing which electives to take during his freshman year at an Ivy League college, I was shaken by what the 19-year-olds of Kenaz’s novel had to confront — and was enlightened as well.
Alan Mintz is the Chana Kekst professor of Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the editor of “Reading Hebrew Literature: Critical Discussions of Six Modern Texts.”