If you think about the sorts of books I tend to pick up and love, Ron Leshem's Beaufort (translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg) is sort of an unlikely candidate for a read I am going to lose myself so thoroughly in and then think fondly of after I turn the last page. But I did love it when I first read it last fall. I have just revisited it for the class I am taking this spring and it only reinforced how impressed I am by it--the writing, the storytelling, the translation--the whole package in other words. The story is about a group of young Israeli soldiers in the last days of their occupation of the Beaufort fortress inside the border of Lebanon just before the country's withdrawal in 2000. Of course perhaps it is not so surprising at all considering one of my all-time favorite books is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, to which Beaufort bears a strong resemblance.
"Yonatan can't see us growing ugly anymore. 'We'll never be as handsome as we are today,' he would always say, and I would ask if that was meant t make us feel better, because it didn't."
"What? Are you totally out of it? How could you not know this game? No way you don't know it. It's called 'What He Can't Do Anymore,' and it's what everyone plays when a friend is killed. You toss his name into the air and whoever's there at the time has to say something about what he can't do anymore. Sometimes it goes on for hours. Like on the soccer field, in the middle of a penalty kick. Late at night, too, for no good reason, you wake everyone up about half a minute after they've dropped off to sleep. Or when you're at home, working on your girlfriend, not thinking about us at all, when the last thing in the world you want is to play the game, well, BAM! the phone rings and it's us on the line. 'Yonatan can't . . . ' we say, and you have to--everyone has to--reel off some association, that's the rule, and you can't repeat what's already been said."
If you follow the narrative arc of (mostly war) fiction published in Israel since its founding, which is what I did (loosely) last fall in my class, it's interesting to see how the attitudes/tone change over time from being very optimistic and patriotic to something increasingly less so. That naivety is shed and the idea of the righteous hero dims. Cracks begin to appear on the surface, the characters become less convinced of their motivations and the country's justifications for their actions. Life and war become far more complex and complicated. And that is the tone that you find in Beaufort.
Beaufort is a Medieval fortress that was taken and occupied in 1982. Initially this was retaliation for an attack, but which turned into an occupation that lasted eighteen long years. The fortress was held with the idea of creating a security zone to prevent further terrorist attacks. But what was initially seen as a military action due to provocation became a long drawn out occupation that divided Israeli society for the first time and resulted in protests, particularly by the mothers of the soldiers who were sent to Lebanon. People began questioning just why their sons were there, what the occupation was really meant to accomplish, why young men were dying for seemingly futile and meaningless reasons (please note I am only trying to offer a little context for the story not give any opinions on the history or politics--only on the novel).
Beaufort is high up on the rugged, mountainous terrain of Lebanon where it is bleak and the enemy is mostly invisible. The young men who are guarding the fortress are doing their job, believing they are there for the right reasons, though those reasons become less and less clear. While they are mired in the Lebanese mud, often not admitting to their families they are in a danger zone for fear of worrying them, they know some guy is drinking coffee with whipped cream back in Tel Aviv clueless that a fellow soldier has just been blown to pieces. And so the questioning begins.
The story is narrated by Erez, a young soldier with occasional anger issues who almost by default becomes the squad commander. He's barely older than the soldiers he leads yet they look up to him to keep them safe and alive. The men sit up on the mountain, disconnected from the rest of the world, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosives, their lives endangered. It's an intense state of being--like bungee jumping only to have the rope cut. But deep friendships form, a camaraderie that will see them through their time there. There is bantering and arguing and joking. They talk of their lives and dreams and what they look forward to when they finish their tour of duty. And then there are the moments of pure adrenaline and fear, when they are bombed or must defuse explosives and anguish when they see someone die.
Ron Leshem was not a combat soldier, but it's uncanny how well he has captured the atmosphere of Beaufort and the men who must protect it. The voices of the characters are impressively authentic you feel he must surely have been there himself, but the novel was written out of a series of conversations he had with men who were stationed in Lebanon. As you might imagine the text is peppered with slang and the common language of ordinary young soldiers, all of which comes through seamlessly in the English translation.
This is not a warm, fuzzy story, but it's an important one. And not just for the time and place, Lebanon and Israel ca. 2000, but the circumstances of these young men can be applied to almost any soldier anywhere, which is why this story has stuck with me and why I find it so well done.
"Yonatan can't know anymore the feeling of renting an apartment with his girlfriend. Yonatan can't know anymore what it is to go with her to Castro clothes and come out with the new winter collection, or to Roladin Bakery in the middle of the night, when it's raining, because all of a sudden she wants a doughnut, and anyway you're a jerk, you never knew how to say no to her. And here I am thinking how lucky I am that I've already had the chance to run out for doughnuts in the rain."
"There are lots of things Yonatan can't do anymore."