Thursday, September 23, 2010

World Cup Wishes by Eshkol Nevo

When we were in Israel recently we watched a 'reality' tv show called "Mehubarim," ('Connections'). It carries a tag line that translates as something like "five men exposed". The promo showed men lined up at urinals, doing their business, when suddenly the bathroom walls are pulled away and they are standing 'exposed' in broad daylight in the middle of a busy downtown street, passing ladies, hands to their mouth, giggle with embarrassment. The show features videos taken by a group of men from very divergent backgrounds candidly sharing the trials and tribulations of their daily lives. One participant is an eighteen year old who tells of living on the street after he was thrown out of his religious home by his father for, well, doing what most North American teenagers do, smoking, drinking, having sex etc. Another story follows a single dad raising two kids and the mayhem that ensues, both at home and in his dating life. If this show is any indication, Israel is going through a male identity crisis. The tv show's depiction of the sensitive male would have been unimaginable just twenty years ago. Israel is a society that has prided itself on its machismo, from the rejection of the 'weak Jew' of the Holocaust that attended the founding of the modern state in 1948, to the establishment of military service as the very core of the new country, not just as a political and strategic necessity, but as a social phenomenon. In recent years, beginning with Israel's participation in the 'unpopular' (and unwinnable) 1982 war in Lebanon, and continuing through the military operations in the West Bank and Gaza during the Intifadas, service in the military has become questioned among young Israelis, and the role the institution has traditionally played as an agent of social integration and pride among men has been eroded. Eshkol Nevo, in his new novel, makes mention of the seminal Israeli film Late Summer Blues (1987) about a group of high-school graduates on the eve of their conscription. Whereas for earlier generations of young Israeli men military induction would have been a moment embraced, even celebrated, as a significant rite of passage, the cohort in the film is depicted enduring personal conflict, uncertainty and dread. The end of their innocence is shaped by the senseless death of one of the friends in an army training accident. The film is mentioned, one imagines, because it was probably important to the young Nevo when he was growing up (he was sixteen when the movie came out, the same age as the kids in it). It also signals that this novel, about a group of four buddies from Haifa, aims to explore the meaning of friendship and identity for the generation of young men that came of age in the post Lebanon War era. The premise is simple. Four soccer-loving friends since high-school agree to write down three secret wishes which will be revealed at the final of the next World Cup in four years time (2002). The idea is to see how close each has come to achieving his wish during the intervening years. From the outset the reader understands that we are reading a manuscript written and narrated by one of the friends Yuval Freed, and that it has been edited by another friend, Yoav Alimi aka 'Churchill'. Part of the mystery is to find out what happened to Freed, and why Churchill is responsible for editing his book. The two other friends are Amichai and Ofir. Pervading the narrative is another question; how much is true and how much made-up. Off the bat Churchill relates that he is 'ridiculed' in the text, claims that the book is riddled with 'factual inaccuracies', but out of loyalty to his friend, has resisted making changes. The story revolves around an axis of loves and heartaches, loyalties and betrayals. Yuval's charismatic best friend Churchill has stolen away Ya'ara, the only girl Yuval knows that he will ever truly love. Nevo's depiction of Yuval's suffering is heartwrenching. After Churchill's infidelity, Ya'ara briefly returns to Yuval to seek solace. They make passionate love and Yuval writes, "The morning after that night, we both knew there would never be another one like it. That I could never hurt her as she needed to be hurt without faking it, and even though she might want to believe that she could, the truth was that she couldn't live more than a few hours with the unconditional love that I have to give." Misfortune is visited upon the other friends too. Ofir has a nervous breakdown, and routine plastic surgery on Amichai's wife Ilana goes tragically wrong. The friends grow and change, move apart and come together again. When it seems that all is lost and what remains of the friends' wishes is merely the remnant of naive fantasies and dashed hopes, it is the story itself that offers the possibility of salvation. With this second novel Nevo is well on his way to becoming Israel's next major novelist. Highly recommended.

No comments: