A prizewinning 1989 novel exhaustively explores the intersecting lives of Israeli soldiers-to-be.
Narrator Melabbes describes their experiences in the early 1950s at Training Base 4, a unit to which draftees with “minor” physical ailments and disabilities are assigned. His promise to himself “to be a stranger everywhere, not to strike roots” is frustrated by the “infiltration” into his consciousness of his comrades’ personalities, goals, and fears. Virginal soccer star Micky has a heart murmur, and a stubborn resistance to new experience. Creepy, resentful Rahamim compulsively exhibits unsoldierly behavior that gets them all into trouble. Miller, a German Jew and concentration camp survivor, keeps to himself, and is subject to epileptic fits. The two most fully drawn characters, kibbutz veteran and model soldier Alon and sardonic, rebellious Avner (a near-dead-ringer for Heller’s Yossarian), embody the contrasting extremes of unquestioning devotion to duty and irascible mockery of it. Kenaz (Returning Lost Loves, 2001, etc.) reproduces the tedium and redundancy of military routine all too faithfully: Infiltration is much too long, and exceedingly slow-paced. There’s some variation, however, during sequences depicting soldiers on leave (where their problems with family and girlfriends too often mirror their miseries at Base 4), and in several efficiently detailed set pieces, including an in-barracks “investigation” when a trainee’s beloved guitar is smashed, an accident with a grenade that brings down on them the wrath of a sadistic drill sergeant (Melabbes’s former misfit schoolmate). There’s also a splendidly described simulated-combat exercise in the desert that ends with one unexpected death and sows the seeds of a subsequent, even more surprising one. And Kenaz tops it off with a bittersweet ending all the more reminiscent of (this novel’s partial counterpart and possible inspiration) Catch-22.
An arduous read, but well worth the effort.