Hailed as Kenaz's masterpiece when it was first published in 1986, this mammoth novel by one of Israel's leading novelists (The Way to the Cats; Musical Moment) is a powerful exploration of military life and Israeli society in microcosm. Set in 1955, a few years after the Israeli War of Independence, the novel follows recruits on the army's Training Base Four, a camp for those medically disqualified from ordinary service. United only by their weaknesses (" 'Defective combat-worthiness! Medical Grade B!... We're going to get basic training for girls!' "), the soldiers are a mix of sabras, Arabs and European immigrants. Melabbes, the first-person narrator, is a socially awkward sabra who would rather observe than act. He becomes friends with Avner, a rash, gregarious romantic from a humble family who resents the rich, cliquish "Jerusalemites" on the base. Alon, a kibbutznik with a strong belief in collective responsibility, is disheartened by his instructors and struggles to live up to his ideals, gradually abandoning his dreams of being a military hero. The group's outcast is Ben-Hamo, an Israeli Arab, who is continuously ostracized, ridiculed and even beaten. The interactions of these and other characters reflect larger questions of weakness, loneliness, friendship, historical duty and the future of Israel. Kenaz builds his narrative out of countless conversations, meticulous descriptions of everyday life in 1950s Israel and searching observations of national dynamics. Though the novel may not have the moral weight of Solzhenitsyn's epics, it has their social sweep. Like the Soviet Union, Israel began as a daring social and political experiment, and Kenaz's exploration of its origins and nature is at once encyclopedic and tenderly human. (Sept.)
Forecast:Readers left numb by the grim sameness of the news from Israel will find fresh insights—and even hope—in Kenaz's portrait of the country in its youth. This impressive novel should serve to introduce Kenaz to a wider audience in the U.S.