Beaufort's Power (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Ron Leshem's masterful narrative accumulates a relentless power One of the most powerful combat novels in all of world literature is "The Red Badge of Courage." This American Civil War classic was written in 1895 by Stephen Crane, who did not serve in the Civil War. Crane in fact was born six years after the war had ended. He achieved this extraordinary literary sleight of hand by combining his skills as a shoe leather journalist and dedicated artist. Stephen Crane, meet Ron Leshem. This Israeli journalist (formerly with Yedioth Ahronoth, currently a program director for Channel 2 television) never served at the former IDF outpost in southern Lebanon that is the focus of his first novel. But you'd never guess that, so realistic, so convincing and so affecting is his book. Instead, like Crane, Leshem assembled his remarkable novel by combining journalistic digging and interviewing with sheer literary imagination. The result is something of a masterpiece. The book, first published in 2005 in Hebrew as "If Heaven Exists," earned the Sapir Prize the following year. The current film version, for which Leshem co-wrote the script, won top awards in Israel and abroad, and on February 24 was up for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category but did not win. Now available in Evan Fallenberg's muscular and inventive English translation, "Beaufort" begins in a low-key, almost humdrum manner. The novel is narrated by squad leader Liraz Liberti, better known as Erez, a second lieutenant in the Givati Brigade. When we meet Erez and the 13 infantry men under his command, it's just before the turn of the millennium. The IDF is nearing the completion of its second decade of occupation beyond the Litani River. Erez and his team are among the 100 or so IDF personnel posted in the mountaintop bunker, a former PLO stronghold, astride the Beaufort Crusader fortress. They periodically exchange fire with Hizballah gunmen. The Israelis take a casualty now and then. But most times, like most military service, things are rather dull. What we get first off is pretty much the standard stuff depicting young troops in any army: examples of the soldiers' black humor, a catalogue of military slang, descriptions of routine exercises and mind-numbing rounds of guard duty, lots of coarse chatter and childish horseplay, insider lore concerning a patrol or an ambush. ("Potato chips make noise. Pretzels make noise. Chocolate Kif Kef bars don't, provided that you take off the wrapper first. Wrappers make noise. So do sucking candies. When you're on a mission, you give a lot of thought to the food that goes out with you. In enemy territory a bag of Ruffles could cost you your life. Hizballah is listening. Drop a wrapper and expect to be bombarded.") Soon enough, however, something very intriguing begins to develop, and that's the narrator himself. Erez proves an astonishingly complex and even contradictory character. He's tough, competent, confident, but also frequently confused and dangerously impetuous. He loves the army and longs to kill terrorists face to face, but he's often cynical about his unit's mission and has little respect for his superior officers. He's devoted to his own troops - with no sense of irony this 21-year-old refers to them as "the kids" - but Erez is customarily hard on them to the point of cruelty. He's a stickler for making his squad obey army regulations, but has himself been jailed for insubordination and is proud of it. Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.