Monday, February 18, 2008

Beaufort by Ron Leshem

"You're a different generation, a generation that asks questions. And we are obligated to give you answers."

The quote comes from the novel Beaufort and is spoken by General Kaplan, the only character that the author claims was based on a real person. No truer words are said in the book. This novel questions the sacrifice made by a generation of Israelis who fought an eighteen year military stalemate against Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in Southern Lebanon. Lebanon has been called Israel's Viet-Nam. Until now it was a wound which was too sensitive to touch.

This bold, imaginative, raw and powerful story was a sensation in Israel when it appeared in 2006, and for good reason. Narrated by twenty-one year old second Lieutenant Erez Liberti it maps the loves, intimacies, fears and doubts of the commander and his squad of "puppies" (a dozen or so men barely out of high-school.) They are stationed at Beaufort, a real-life Crusader fortress located in the so-called "security buffer zone" north of the Israel/Lebanon border. The story covers two tours of duty ending with the harrowing withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

Erez calls Beaufort “a cage of ugliness right at the center of heaven.” It's a perfect description. The geography is magnificent, but just below the fortress in the surrounding villages terrorists plan ambushes, rocket attacks and plant roadside bombs along the access routes in and out of the outpost. The "ugliness/heaven" contrast also decribes the experience of the commander and his crew. War after all has its own absurd logic, breeding a kind of euphoria via a surreal co-existence of opposites; stretches of unendurable boredom and fatigue jutaposed with sudden, razor sharp life-and-death moments; love and mutual dependency between comrades juxtaposed with terrible pain and anguish when one is killed. Erez thrives on it. At least for a time. He says, “My soldiers – I was prepared to die for them, I swear it: I really was ready to die for them. That’s not just some slogan; I felt good about it. Seems to me they were willing to die for me, too, and that’s an incredible feeling.” And later, when his second in command is seriously wounded, “That’s Lebanon, you’re totally smeared in blood and the guy lying there is your best friend.” This portrait of these courageous young men is like the book itself, at once heartbreaking and exhilarating. Note: The movie on which this novel is based is up for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year.

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