Universal soldier

Two years after his debut novel shook up Israel, Ron Leshem is set to conquer the English-speaking world.

beaufort book 88 224 (photo credit: )
beaufort book 88 224
(photo credit: )
Beaufort By Ron Leshem Delacorte Press 368 pages; $24 From his executive offices in Tel Aviv, Ron Leshem sees the world through a prism of colors. The "yellows" in his life are the boring Tel Aviv types, similar to himself, who bury themselves in a homogeneous existence and refuse to acknowledge those who are different; the "green" represents the luscious hills of southern Lebanon surrounding the crusader fortress of Beaufort, which provides the backdrop to his best-selling first novel Im Yesh Gan Eden (Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir), and the "blacks" and "grays" are the images of the army, or more specifically the combat soldiers, whom he hopes his storytelling will romanticize and force Israelis to ask some serious internal questions about the state of their society. "It's a social commentary," begins the 32-year-old, a former news editor at Yediot Aharonot and the current vice president of programming for Channel 2 subsidiary Keshet, as he starts describing his militaristic book, which has sold more than 150,000 copies since its release nearly two years ago. "The first question I wanted to explore is who, as a society, are we sending out to the frontlines to die for us, and the second is whether we are really asking enough questions of ourselves when we send them out there." While it might seem as though the answers to Leshem's basic premise are pretty straightforward in a country that has been dogged by war since its independence exactly 60 years ago, to the new generation of thinkers and writers such as this author, however, nothing is as clear cut as it appears. "As a journalist [in 2000], I went into the field for the first time and looked into the faces of the people who are fighting for us. I realized then that the army was no longer the melting pot that we had once been so proud of, where everyone arrives and feels immediately equal," says Leshem, who did not serve in a combat unit himself. His main protagonist is one Liraz (nickname Erez) Liberti, a 21-year-old officer responsible for a team of young soldiers stationed at Beaufort during the final months before the pullout from Lebanon in 2000. "Here I was, looking at the front line, and I realized that it is the weak and the poor we are sending out there - those from the periphery or the newcomers, the immigrants and also the national religious. Mainstream society asks less about those types of people. It was almost impossible to find someone from Tel Aviv there. "We are one country but we are not a nation. We are totally disconnected from one another, we don't care about one another, we don't reach out to those who look different than us and in many ways we even hate those who are different from us or perhaps we are afraid of them, and we stick together only with those who are the same as us. Lebanon really highlights these gaps." During our hour-long interview, Leshem's attempts to answer his own social and moral questions lead him to repaint the classic picture of an IDF soldier, criticize local artists for failing to address the ongoing conflict and, in explaining his continuing success, confides that he's actually had enough of this debut novel and is ready to tackle other equally important social issues. Unfortunately for Leshem, the book's recent translation by Evan Fallenberg into English (as well as translations into 10 other languages) and its publication earlier this month in the US, Canada and Great Britain are factors likely to keep the spark of Beaufort (as the book in known in English) ignited for just a little bit longer. "I'm so ready to move on from this," jokes Leshem, who will head to the US next month for a two-week, 12-city promotional tour. He remains tight-lipped, however, about the subject of his next novel, hinting only that it is not about the army. IT'S NOT surprising that Leshem is fed up with all the attention Beaufort has afforded him. It was made into an award-winning film directed by Joseph Cedar, it has drawn praise from some of the country's top novelists and it won him the country's most coveted literary prize, the Sapir Award, last year. While the high points are surely cause to celebrate, the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 thrust Leshem and his darkly comic yet realistic story into a more dubious spotlight, with bereaved parents, girlfriends and friends using his words to eulogize their loved ones. "When I finished writing the book, I never thought it was pessimistic or a story about death," he says reflectively. "Actually, I believed that it was full of optimistic charm and love between friends." It's a coming-of-age story, explains Leshem, likening its central theme to William Golding's Lord of the Flies. "I'm writing about a bunch of children in an adolescent kingdom in a very small cave, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery with no adult advice or supervision. Here they create their own language, beliefs and humor. This is my way of writing about being 18 in Israel." From the book's early chapters, Leshem plunges the reader headfirst into the depths of the Beaufort fortress, which served as a strategic army base for the IDF since the invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The book opens with the haunting words: "Yonatan can't see us growing ugly anymore," and goes on to describe a game the soldiers call "what he can't do anymore." "Yonatan can't take his little brother to a movie anymore. Yonatan can't watch Hapoel bring home the soccer trophy anymore. Yonatan can't listen to the latest disc by Zion Golan anymore. He can't see Tom with the ugliest slut in Nahariya anymore - he'll never know how great it is when your mother's proud of you for getting accepted to college. Even a community college. He won't be at his grandfather's funeral, he won't know if his sister gets married." "Suddenly, I heard this first chapter being quoted on TV, in the news or at people's funerals," recalls Leshem, pointing out that some five Yonatans were killed during the 2006 war. "It was then that I realized my writing would be forever connected to the saddest moments of some people's lives." He also says that parents and friends of soldiers who had been killed started contacting him, telling him that their son or boyfriend had been reading the book just before his death. "They would ask me to come and meet the family or write some kind of dedication to their son," says Leshem. "I couldn't say no to people who had just lost their sons or their friends, so I found myself day after day dealing with death and by the end of the war I was so exhausted. I couldn't go on with my writing and could not focus on my other work. I simply could not talk about it [the book] any more. I had to move on with my life." AS MUCH AS the impact of his writing has resonated, Leshem says that his original aim was simply to raise awareness to what he calls "Israel's forgotten war" and tell a story that was so passionate to a large minority of young soldiers that it forced him to question his own existence. "We left Lebanon on May 24, 2000, and three days later it was as if the war had never happened," comments Leshem of the 18-year conflict that sent thousands of troops across the border to man Beaufort and other bases in enemy territory. "[The First Lebanon War] became Israel's forgotten war, in fact, it was forgotten about even while we were still there. The next time we heard about Lebanon was when war broke out there for the second time. "We have a tendency to forget about wars in our culture. Look at the Vietnam War in US culture and then compare it to the Yom Kippur War here. In the US, they are constantly dealing with that war, there is a stream of films and books about Vietnam but here we have only two books [by A.B. Yehoshua and Haim Sabato] about the Yom Kippur War, and in the meantime, the whole country is still walking around with huge scars from it." Jewish life in Russia, the Holocaust and sometimes stories about Jerusalem are as deep as most local authors are willing to delve, berates Leshem. "They never want to write about anything that might be too sensitive, anything with wounds still open. They claim it's just too fresh in our consciousness, but I really believe that our writing should be made relevant, especially if you want young people to read it." Two publishers originally turned down Leshem's novel, believing that it would not be very popular with the literary market, especially with young readers. "They told me that people here wanted escapism," says Leshem. "They said that most readers are women who would not be interested in reading about the army and that young people did not read books." The novel was eventually published by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir and only two weeks after it was released it reached the best-seller list, where it stayed at the No. 1 spot for 18 months. "It was actually the young people who were reading it and I truly believe it was because the story was so relevant to them," Leshem points out. While he is delighted that the novel is so popular with the younger generation, Leshem also feels it is important for everyone to heed his words. "I wanted to influence the people in the streets here," he says emphatically. "I wanted to really touch them emotionally and change their views." BORN AND raised in Givatayim, which he describes as "the most boring place in Israel," Leshem says: "I have no urge to write about myself or the people I know. For me writing is a tool to escape and I like to focus on the places that I never had a chance to go to or about people who are as different to me as possible. "I was brought up in a very middle- to upper-class, left-wing town and never mixed with people who were different." After the army, where he served in an intelligence unit in central Tel Aviv, Leshem joined Yediot Aharonot as an editor but soon decided that his passion was writing. One of his first assignments as a reporter was at the Netzarim army base in the Gaza Strip. "It was the second week of the second intifada in October 2000 and I had been sent to write a piece about the young commander on the base," recalls Leshem. "As soon as I entered the office, however, I knew I didn't have a real story here. The officer was too yellow and I felt nothing towards him." He looked around for someone more colorful to interview. "Missiles were falling and houses were being bombed all around us. Suddenly, I heard a young officer say to his friend 'Well, brother, this is f***ing Saigon here.' It sounded beautiful to my ears." Leshem tried to talk to the young officer, who he later discovered was named Rotem (nickname Ronen) Yair. At first Yair sent the journalist away but Leshem persisted asking him questions about Gaza. "He kept answering me about Lebanon, though," says Leshem, explaining that the unit had been part of the pullout only a few months earlier. "On the one hand, he hated me because I was from Tel Aviv and had not served in a combat unit; on the other he really wanted me to know what had happened to him, to hear his story. He told me that there had been nights, while he was lying there in ambush, that he would get angry at people like me, not because I was drinking cappuccinos in Tel Aviv but because he knew that at the end of the day I would not think to turn on the radio and listen to what was happening to him in Lebanon." Two months later, when Yair was released from the army, Leshem - who by now had become obsessed with the whole Lebanon story - went to meet him at his base and convinced him to spend a week in Tel Aviv retelling his story, "even though his girlfriend and his family were waiting eagerly to see him." "It was amazing and I knew I had to tell this important story," says Leshem. The rest, as they say, is history, with Leshem going on to interview many more soldiers who had manned the fortress during the late 1990s. "I gathered these people around me and tried to take their souls out of the wrapping," says Leshem in the sound-bite language that seems to come so naturally to him. "I emptied myself of my own personal convictions and filled myself up with their own personal words. I tried to be as empathetic as possible and feel all their experiences as if they were my own. "Even though I had never been there in my life, while I was writing I was traveling up to Lebanon every night. If you asked me now in a polygraph test whether I served at Beaufort, then I would honestly answer that I had been there."