Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Meditations on the Holy Land and Book Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

23. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

What I noticed most about my time in Israel last month was the overwhelming sense of community-that and (not coincidentally) everyone's tendency to force-feed me. In that vein, a friend of mine teaching in Israel for the year lent this book to me during my travels. "You'll give it back to me when I see you again," he said vaguely, and because both of us were feeling just confident enough in our Israeli-Jewish bubble, I knew that I would.

That sense of community persists in this book about three contemporary Israeli women, but in a weird and not quite as comforting way. The blurb on the back of the book is misleading. It begins, "Yael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny dusty Israeli village...passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life." The blurb implies a togetherness that the characters technically experience, but as the writing makes quite evident, do not feel. From the beginning of the book, Lea is isolated socially from the other two, though it's implied that the three played together as children. When Avishag and Yael have a fight, Avishag yells "I don't even know you!" and Yael takes this to heart. Despite the togetherness of their shared experiences, shared town, shared dysfunctional families, each girl feels alone, and each girl is ultimately presented alone, in Boianjiu's alienating prose.

When the women are deployed as soldiers in the Israeli army, they really are separated from everyone they have ever known. Even here though, there is an unsettling similarity of experience that will haunt each woman for the remainder of the book. This is a society that is intimately familiar with each others' experiences, and yet weirdly isolated for all that. They remember together, but they suffer separately. Each of their experiences are colored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to treat the other is a fundamental issue in the book, as it is in Israeli society. Neither the author nor Israel has yet answered the question, though both dwell on it to macabre degrees. It is Yael who expresses a sentiment that I found in some Israelis, one of sympathy and frankly, brotherhood, with the Palestinians. On her base, Palestinian boys from a nearby village begin stealing things. In one scene, Yael describes:

It is the most ludicrous, charming thing I have ever seen.
The fence around the base, by the ammunition bunker, it is gone. Not anymore. Vanished.
Those boys. Those devil boys. They have stolen it.

My laughter echoes, across mountains I cannot see in the dark.


Boianjiu writes in stream-of-consciousness fragments, a format that I have probably mentioned my distaste for in the past. I think the style has its place, as it echoes the rhythm of human thoughts, but it can also be unvarnished, if you will, in a way that some readers find raw and emotionally honest, and I often find unfinished or lazy. Of course, Boianjiu's method is deliberate, and her characters are raw, unfinished, and lazy, and so it suits them well.

My biggest qualm with this book is that I do not feel the characters go through any significant changes, as a traditional novel would call for. But this is not a traditional novel. It is more aptly looked at as a series of short stories or snippets in the lives of Israelis, anchored around the nationally unique army experience. Boianjiu, a young Israeli woman herself who served in the army, hauntingly portrays the effects that army duty can have on impressionable adolescents. But though the army undoubtedly scars Yael, Lea, and Avishag-and brings them back together (that is, to their habitual aloneness-in-togetherness)-they remain the same self-obsessed, melodramatic people that they were at the beginning.

I sincerely hope that Boianjiu's portrait isn't truly characteristic of Israeli society, though it is certainly characteristic of teenagers and young adults. But there is hope. The young people that I met on my trip, both Americans and Israelis, were astoundingly open-minded and caring people, and I will carry the memories of our questions and discussions for a long time to come.


Biblibio said...

So it's literally taken me this long to formulate thoughts on how to respond to this review. Because... oh, I have so many thoughts. I'll try to keep this short.

Basically, I've been really skeptical about reading The People of Forever Are Not Afraid for two reasons: 1. The marketing campaign tried to exoticize Israel and Boianjiu herself, and that's something I can't stand (particularly about my own country/culture), and 2. Boianjiu seems to have written her book for an international audience. She chose to write about experiences that are... not the standard. But she's presenting them as the standard (this is at least the vibe that I've been getting).

But then reviews started showing up in Israel, and... people didn't see the falsities that I had seen in just the short excerpts. Perhaps I'm wrong, I thought. Maybe it's an honest portrayal. Your review makes me think it isn't, though. Because this presentation of Israeli society is so, so, so weird and inconsistent. Even the actual army experience - most women don't serve in units like any of the three girls, they usually serve in offices and have completely different experiences.

The impression I've gotten from the back cover and from the segments I've read shows me a seriously dramatized version of my society. And I have serious issues with that. The army influences each one of us who serves in different ways, but it absolutely does not isolate - it brings people together from across the spectrum. Turning this false isolation into a political statement mis-portrays Israeli society.

Obviously the Israeli political-military situation is unique and confusing (even for those of us who are living it!), but... I don't know. Nothing I've seen of Boianjiu's writing gives me confidence that she knows how to capture it. Plus stream-of-consciousness, as you say, can too often come off as lazy... Okay, those were my rant-thoughts. And I'm still not sure what I feel or think.

Space Station Mir said...

Thanks for responding, because I'm sure you have a more accurate perspective on this than I do. But from what I do know, her writing did not at all match up with the experiences I've had in Israel or the Israelis I've met. That said, that doesn't mean it isn't "her" truth.