Book Review: Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story
Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016
Hardcover. 242 pp. $25.00
ISBN: 978-1-61620-458-7
As a former IDF infantry soldier who served in Israel’s first foray into Lebanon during the long months of Operation Litani (1978) and a frequent reader of narrative fiction and nonfiction by those with firsthand experience of the traumas and absurdities of war, I was immediately won over by Friedman’s lean, muscular, and profoundly empathic account of the horrific cost of defending an obscure hilltop fortification known as the Pumpkin in the security zone Israel established in south Lebanon a generation later.

As a haunting coming of age story Pumpkinflowers can be profitably read alongside Noam Chayut’s superb memoir, The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust. In very different yet equally essential ways, each author offers a profound immersion in the formation of the modern Israeli psyche and the corrosive effects of occupations and wars that never seem to quite end.

Friedman (whose first nonfiction book The Aleppo Codex won the Sami Rohr Prize) is a writer with rare observational gifts when it comes to both the human and natural landscape. Especially admirable is his devotion to telling the stories of others, especially those who sacrificed their lives in defending the outpost in the late 1990s.

These multifaceted portraits are as unforgettably elegiac and heartbreaking as any in the contemporary literary annals of war. One of these figures is Avi Ofner who struggles “to maintain a barbed exterior while hanging on to something of his childhood, hoarding a small supply of innocence in the hope that it would survive until his discharge.”

Friedman’s conscientious inclusion of the plaintive hopes and dreams of such young men, juxtaposed with their actions defending Israel’s security zone in perilous circumstances ensures that Pumpkinflowers is a consistently gripping if troubling chronicle.

Throughout, he moves fluidly from grippingly visceral scenes of combat (the enchanting pastoralism of south Lebanon is interspersed with very sudden and horrific violence) to life in Israel. Here he delineates the irrevocable transformation of Israeli society that took place in the aftermath of its withdrawal after groups like the Four Mothers movement (their heroic protests as some labeled them “Nasrallah’s Whores” probably deserves its own story) and tragedies such as the deaths of 73 soldiers in northern Israel in the infamous helicopter crash of 1997.

These groups helped ignite the country’s outrage over so many young lives cut short: “Something important in the mind of the country – an old utopian optimism – was laid to rest … . The Lebanon outposts were incubators for the Israelis of the age that followed: allergic to ideology, thinkers of small practical thoughts, livers of life between bombardments, expert in extracting the enjoyment possible from a constricted and endangered existence. The former soldiers…didn’t come back from Lebanon and devote themselves to politics, defense, or settling the frontiers but rather to the vigorous and stubborn building of private lives, and these combined energies have become the fuel driving the country.”

Whether one thinks that changed ethos is altogether laudable, Friedman is a persuasive witness and participant. In the end, the reader is left with the haunting question of whether the defense of such fortifications was worth so many lost lives.

Intriguingly, just two years after leaving Lebanon for the last time as a soldier, Friedman returns as a Canadian tourist and his human encounters on his trek from Beirut (the fashionable city’s cosmopolitan grace is ultimately spoiled for him by the appearance of the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in its best bookstores) to the forlorn site of the former Pumpkin, a region now dominated by Hezbollah fighters, are chillingly rendered.
Drawing so very meaningfully on a variety of materials (diaries, interviews with the loved ones of fallen soldiers, letters, archival documents, and of course his own achingly vivid memories), Friedman presents war’s surrealism and hyperrealism, a society’s helpless anguish and frustration over mounting losses in a meaningless conflict, and indelible vignettes of the young soldiers themselves, with lyrical and tragic force.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His most recent book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film, and he is coeditor of Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture.

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