This was another book that I really wanted to read after listening to an interview with the author, in the Swedish book program “Babel”. And yet, if this is what modern literature is all about, I must say that I am not too keen on it. As a matter of fact, I don’t understand why international newspapers give a book like this raving reviews, because it does not deserve it. If this is what modern society finds a good book, then the end of times must be near, because THIS is awful! The author needs therapy! Writing the book was clearly a scream for help and I doubt it healed her to get the things off her chest!!!
What she describes is a very disturbed generation of Israelis. Foul mouthed girls that enter the obligatory military service, where they do nothing but being promiscuous and waiting for their time to be over. But when it is over, they go home and don’t get out of bed because they have been so traumatized. Some stay in bed for a year, some has to get treatment and some do what one of the character’s brother did, go and blow their brains out. My country has not been to war since 1814, so who knows what that is like? I must admit, that perhaps this is reality in Israel? A country under constant attack from their neighbours, must raise a generation without hope, a generation that doesn’t know what to do with itself. But at the same time, really?!
The book starts out, in a tiny village in Northern Israel, close to the Lebanon border. The graduating class is bored stiff. For years the education has been really poor. They have studied the same religion course for three years and no-one noticing this? There is a lack of transportation, a lack of communication and then I don’t mean just between the adults and their children but also, there is no reception for mobile phones, so they are isolated. One of the things I hated about the book was that sure, the girls swear and talk a lot about sexual activities, but they DON’T TALK to each other. In no way does the book make these girls 3D! When the book ends, you still don’t know who they are and why they react the way they do to things. You don’t really know what the problem is. And you wonder if they are all brain-dead or what? None of the characters are likeable, except for perhaps sandwich shop owner Ron. He seems to be the only well-adjusted person, a normal human being! All the others are psychos.
Before we get to read about them all doing their military service, which the book is supposed to be about, we get to know that there once was three little girls that were best friends. Lea, Avishag and Yael. But by the time the book starts, Lea has become miss popular and do not associate with her former friends anymore. Avishag stopped talking to Yael for a year, after finding out that Yael had a crush on her brother Dan, but when the book starts, they are friends again and this is when Dan shoots his brain out. Why? Who knows? Noone seemed to care in the book. But it seemed like he was troubled after his military service. Suddenly the girls are in the military, just like that. We are not introduced to their training at all, their thoughts. Yael, suddenly is a weapon expert, and the only one that actually do anything worthwhile during her time in service, training the boys. She is great at that, too bad we have to read about her sexual encounters in the most inappropriate places on base and with people she should not have been involved with, like superior officers etc. The book gives the view actually that girls are just there to supply sex. They kill time for two to three years, are put in jobs that are no better than sweeping a floor. I would have questioned it all had I been conscripted. No wonder they go potty afterwards, having wasted two years on doing nothing. Except as I said, having sex and sunbathing. Or sitting staring at a monitor for 8 hours every day, seeing nothing but pixels.
Yael did get to do something at least. Lea, is posted to a border crossing, having to check Palestinians’ papers every day. She’s bored stiff. So are her male colleagues and especially Yaniv, a young man who checks the cars. He is too friendly with all the passengers and drivers. Doesn’t follow the precautionary rules, but sticks his head in and chats, kisses babies and receives gifts in the form of olives etc. Till the day when Fadi, a Palestinian that usually walked through the crossing and showed his papers to Lea, almost severed Yaniv’s head from his body, with a knife, when he stuck his head in to the car as usual. That’s when Lea decides to become an officer so that she can order rules to be followed. She gets the training, which is not described, and gets posted at road 433, to be in charge of four boys. Their task is to stop cars and tell them that the road has been closed for years. She spends her days on her bed, studying for the University entrance exams and at night she has sex with one of the four boys. Noone ever comes up the road, except one day when two Palestinian men and a little boy, come demonstrating and wants her to punish them so that they can get in to international press. A rather funny and absurd description follows, showing how bizarre things really are.
We meet Lea years later, after she has had her not-getting-out-of-the-bed time of life, and has moved to Tel Aviv. She never started University and starts working in a sandwich shop, where the owner Ron, falls for her. But she only lets him see the parts of her, that she wants to show. He has made it big, after his military service, and after speculating on the stock- and real estate market. He gets used to never being allowed to see her flat, and to her sitting in the bathroom every morning crying. Nothing shocks him, not even when he one day follows her home and finds out that she has had Faid locked up in her spare bedroom for a couple of days, torturing him with tools she has knicked from the sandwich shop. Why wasn’t Faid locked up for the murder of Yaniv???
Avishag must be the most pathetic of the girls. Her mother was their teacher in school, having to live in the village because the rent in Jerusalem was too high. Avishag spends her first months of military service, just sitting watching a monitor showing a part of a fence at a border. Eventually she gets transferred to the Egyptian border where she has an affair with her commanding officer. Navad sits every day in a plastic chair and lets the girls check papers and the lorries crossing. It doesn’t matter if people are smuggling black market DVDs or Ukrainian prostitutes, he doesn’t lift a finger and the girls can not do anything but let everyone pass. One day there is an incident. The two girls strip down naked and lay sunbathing on the watch tower. It is seen by the Egyptian guards on the other side of the border and the girls get thrown in prison for bad behaviour, which doesn’t bother them since it means they can spend their days playing cards and then get out of military service early. What is not explained is why Avishag stays in bed for 8 months and then ends up on anti-depressants, therapy and working with scouting in the desert?
The only one of the girls that has a life after military service is Yael, that travels around the world, buying books, translating them and posting them on the internet. And writing songs and doing the same thing with them. Lea gets married and writes pornography books under a pseudonym. When she is three months pregnant, unbeknownst to people, part three of the book starts and this is where you really start wondering why you chose to stand in a month queue at the library to borrow this book! A war has started with Syria and the Israeli boy soldiers are going in on foot. Reservists have been invited to join if they like. IF THEY LIKE! Why are these three girls volunteering? No explanation! Thanks to that Yael has had an affair with this base’s commanding officer Shai, all three of them get to be together, on his base. But he leaves as they arrive. They are the ONLY three arriving and all girls on base wonder why these old women have come there. Those girls sunbathe and do absolutely nothing worthwhile. One day they have all left. Our three girls then, that must be in their early 20s? They have gone in to the boys’ barracks drinking up their booze, playing their TV-games and waiting. Waiting for what? They do not have any tasks? What are they doing there? No explanation! Then the boys come back two weeks later. Shai is dead and the air force has to step in because the ground force failed their task. The boys think that Yael should have sex with a fat boy, because “he’s just lost his best friend”. Yael refuses and says she has just lost her boyfriend (Shai) and the sergeant says that Shai was not her boyfriend. Then things flip out. The boys drag the girls to the flagpole on base and tells them to write with stones “we are whores”, under the flag in big letters. The girls refuse and the boys rape them for four days, till Yael comes up with the idea that they must act completely contrary to what the boys expect them to do. It works, after four days the boys leave. During this time, the girls act in a very strange manner. They don’t seem to be bothered at all and after the four days they just stay on base, saying that noone will know what has happened there. But Yael says that Lea will write about it, which it says at the end of the chapter that she doesn’t do. That the story leaks out somehow anyway and that she gives birth to a child 7 months later. And I as the reader wonder, what was this all about? What was the point of this chapter? But it’s not over yet. The last one is the most bizarre of all. Suddenly we are back when Yael is going in to the military and is scared of being blown up by a car bomb. But the chapter is about her mother, how she asked to do military service as an air traffic controller and that this job usually was folded for daughters of pilots. And the air force being for daughters of politicians and high military per se. It talks about how she spent her service on a beach where airplanes now and then refueled and how she got her nose fixed surgically. Utterly pointless chapter. Honestly, what sort of book was this? I suddenly remembered why I stopped reading novels from the age of 12-22. Because I didn’t feel that imagined stories held any interest. Then I started reading the classics, realizing that fiction CAN be good, if you have a really good storyteller. But it seems like storytelling is a lost art. It’s all about throwing in as much sex and swearing as possible, nowadays. And then the literary critics at Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economists tell the world that you are nothing short of a miracle! Sorry! I can’t agree. If this is Israel of today, I fear for its future! If this is Israel’s military force of today, reconsider conscription and let the girls stay home!!!!