MORE THAN HALFWAY through The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, a minor character has a sudden realization about the state of affairs in the Jewish State: “It wasn’t right, this whole seventy-year war,” he says. The novel movingly evokes an existential ennui so profound it leaves people unable to do anything but “wait for the wait to be over,” for a “relief that never comes.”
We tend to associate world-weariness with age and experience, but as Shani Boianjiu’s stunning debut demonstrates, some experiences age us independent of the actual passage of time. The novel centers around three girls who come of age while serving in the army. For them, as for many young Israelis who spend their most formative years in the military, everyday encounters with death and violence leave scars that time may never heal. They are haunted by the past, and dread the “future of the past.” As one character puts it: “sometimes I remember things and beg for mercy.”
Yael, Avishag and Lea grew up in a tiny, remote Israeli village where the school is housed in a flimsy caravan and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Their only escape came by way of imagination, and together the girls conjured up a fantasy world in which they are different ages and have different names: “We were Esther and Meek and Olga. Never us.” Back then, their world was small “but larger than life” because it only happened in their head. Back then, they “cared so much, about everything.”
Life in the army robs the girls of their youth, strips them of any sense of idealism, and leaves them without even a more basic, narcissistic kind of ambition. Their listlessness leads them to question “why the world even gives us words.”
To that, the most potent answer may be Boianjiu’s beautifully rendered account of the absurdities and pathos inherent to everyday life in Israel. As the German-Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan said of language after Auschwitz, it was the only thing that remained “reachable, close and secure,” even if it could give him “no words” for what happened. Like Celan, Boianjiu writes from experience (at just 25 her memories of army service, one imagines, are still fresh) and like the poet she addresses her past with the only weapon she retains: language. She, too, feels the inadequacy of words to address “a problem for which I had no words.”
At times, the novel’s reflections on love and loss, desire and despair, read like poetry. Encountering a familiar smell, a character describes it as “the opposite of memory. A thing other than other.” And for all its bleakness, this book is not short on humor: When a sushi place in Tel Aviv closes down because business is slow, it’s replaced by a sandwich kiosk called “We Don’t Judge” that’s wildly successful.
When Ron, the owner of the sandwich kiosk, follows his employee and new lover Lea back to her one-and-a-half bedroom apartment what he finds in the half bedroom is a naked Arab man with hands and legs cuffed. Lea explains that he killed a boy in her unit once: “Cut his neck. Just reached in through his car and grabbed him by the collar.” In this novel — as in the real-life version of Israel — the comic and the grotesque exist side by side.
Oscar Wilde once called boredom the most horrible of sins, perhaps because boredom is contagious. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid one sometimes feels as if the author is herself losing interest in her subject — or subjects. This might explain why this novel, so rich in its descriptions of military life and youthful angst, lacks any sense of meaningful character development. Lea, Avishag and Yael are largely indistinguishable from one another. Moreover, Boianjiu is that rare female voice to emerge from Israel and join the international world of letters, but her novel offers little in the way of a uniquely feminine or otherwise new perspective on a subject that has already been explored at length by Israel’s greatest writers.
Perhaps this is because Boianjiu, like her characters, is too wearied to imagine a brighter future, too despondent even to care.