Books: The first trip home

Itzhak Ben Ner’s short-story collection recalls the Israel of another era, but it is anything but nostalgic.

black white photo beach Israel 521 (photo credit: Werner Braun)
black white photo beach Israel 521
(photo credit: Werner Braun)
Itzhak Ben Ner’s new anthology of stories might surprise readers who are expecting to immerse themselves in the nostalgia of yesteryear; to the plowed fields of the valleys, the just wars, and the late-afternoon espressos. The book describes the uncertain feeling that the State of Israel might have been a fantasy from the start.
They say that Israel used to be a happy place – don’t believe it. Israel has always been a polarized, oppressive, angry, hot, petty and unforgiving place. The summer has always been too long and hot (and when the story takes place, there were no air conditioners), families were annoying and devious, and wars dragged on long after the last bullet was fired. The only real nostalgia in the story is the moment that we are naïve enough to believe the crazy idea that life would be better in another place – New Zealand, for example.
Hamasa Haleili Ha’aroch Habaita (The Long Night Journey Home) comprises five old stories that Ben Ner wrote, as well as two recent ones. The old ones definitely belong to the group of Ben Ner stories whose vitality has not waned.
Atalia, the protagonist of the story named after her, is a war widow who cracks under the continuous pain of mourning and tries to escape from it by seducing married men living on her kibbutz. Atalia finally does something unforgivable and is forced to leave and go to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is also the refuge of Nicole, who cannot forgive her partner, the illustrious commander, for the single battle that he lost. While he tries to create a new life for himself following his military service, she tortures him with her cold sexuality and threatens to leave him.
Two of the stories are from the anthology called A Far Land. The first one is “Eliezer Shoshani and/or Eliko Ben Shoshan,” which is about an average Middle Eastern man who has been successful in the business and academic worlds, but has to make a difficult choice: Should he take a prestigious position offered by the new government following the political reversal of 1977, despite the ideological aversion he has to its policies? However, Ben Ner hints that this aversion is only a cover-up for constant feelings of inferiority he has carried with him since his childhood when he lived in a slum. And since he is trapped in a loveless marriage, this is a painful reminder of the life he left.
The next story, “A Far Land,” is the mirror image of the “Eliezer Shoshani” story that confirms what we already knew: that the ethnic gap brings out feelings of anger and humiliation, which no seat in Shas (which did not even exist at the time) could overcome.
The protagonist is Shovli, an Ashkenazi patriarch who is married to a woman of Middle Eastern descent. They have a gaggle of lazy children who lack ambition and are often caught in illegal activity. The wife is neglected and spends a great deal of time in the kitchen. Shovli watches as his family falls apart. He cannot do a thing to prevent it, and just clings to his detailed fantasy of moving to New Zealand.
This story also takes place after the political reversal. Abie Nathan fasts until peace is reached, and Shovli interprets any protest as a hostile gesture against him. The story is complex and ambitious.
It’s about the racism of both sides, in which the protagonist becomes like a firecracker about to explode, since he has married someone from the “other side.” He himself begins to behave like “them,” and in the end pays the price of loneliness and loss.
“The weary,” one of the two new stories, might be based on true stories. The protagonist is Romi Schneider, who moved to Israel in 1969 to act in a movie called Bloomfield, directed by Uri Zohar. The father of the narrator, a radio station editor (like Ben Ner himself), meets Schneider, a capricious, sad actress, in a Tel Aviv humous restaurant and shows her a little bit of the softness and affection she so desperately needs.
The next day, he attends the recording of a comedy program of soldiers stationed in Sinai, including a young singer and Uri Zohar. What happens next is a drawn-out saga of sexual harassment and perhaps rape. Schneider dies a decade later at the age of 42.
The story that gives its name to the anthology is also apparently autobiographical.
It describes a formative experience that every soldier undergoes: the first trip home after the first few weeks of military service. As the narrator is hitching a ride home, he meets Israelis circa 1955: a crude, seductive girl; a kibbutznik who loathes David Ben-Gurion; and a drunk. The story differs from the others in the anthology as a result of the positive naiveté that pervades throughout, and a faith that the future bodes well. It ends thus: “For many years, he continued to make this same trip home. Yet he never again experienced that feeling of returning home for the very first time, the wonder and innocence, the fear and courage.”
And like the protagonist, no one who reads this story can help but join Ben Ner on this trip home.Translated by Hannah Hochner.