Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story, by Matti Friedman. Algonquin Press. 256 pages. Hardcover $25.95
This remarkable book – part memoir, biography, history, and meditation – explores a particular place of intermittent combat at a particular time in the history of the Middle East. Matti Friedman takes us through that brief sequence of years, the winding up of the twentieth-century and the unleashing of the twenty-first, with a journalist’s eye and a poet’s heart. The transition is one from fragile hopes of peace to something far less optimistic: a condition of endless and perhaps escalating war.
The place is the security zone established in southern Lebanon by Israel and its Lebanese Christian allies. More particularly, it is an outpost in that zone at the top of a hill known as the Pumpkin. The time is the 1990s, with a peek into the coming century. These young soldiers, teenagers for the most part, learn what has been learned before throughout the history of war. There is very little glory in it. The soldier’s bond is increasingly to other soldiers and not to the ideals or even the nation and citizens for whom he or she fights.
What soldiers suffer through during their tours of duty is rarely in the public consciousness, especially in a war that has no official name and where television news is not being made. For all but its surviving participants and the relatives of those who died there, it is quickly forgotten if ever known at all. There is a serious question about whether the sacrifices made changed anything, whether the costs bought anything. Perhaps the security zone experience only accelerated the misunderstandings, hatreds, and patterns that mark the region’s situation fifteen years later.
Matti Friedman tells the story of his time spent on the Pumpkin, but he does not begin there. Rather he begins with someone else’s story, a soldier named Avi who came to the Pumpkin in 1994. Avi was an individualist, a young man who distrusted institutions. His outlook added stresses to his time in the Security Zone, but, knowing himself, he managed to overcompensate and get his job done. Through Avi’s story, Friedman tells a version of the universal coming-of-age tale that is military basic training. This is a process of stripping you down and rebuilding you as part of a dedicated team – as part of a machine.
Avi was an eloquent person who was likely to become a fine writer. His writings about life in the Security Zone survived him, and Friedman makes effective use of these to paint one version of the mid-1990s on The Pumpkin. In this section we learn: “In the jargon of army radiomen, wounded soldiers are ‘flowers.’ Dead soldiers are ‘oleanders.’ It isn’t a code, because it isn’t secret.” Such language is “intended to bestow beauty on ugliness.” The outposts take names like Basil, Crocus, Red Pepper, or even Pumpkin. A piece of military technology might be named Buttercup. Such naming is a useful distancing device from the horrors that soldiers will most likely need to describe.
The Avi section introduces a range of interesting characters, as a group learning to live with the constant threat of guerilla warfare: improvised explosive devices, standard land mines, and shelling. It concludes with an accident: the rotors of one helicopter cut through the bottom of Avi’s.
Part Two opens with the aftermath of this dual crash – the reaction to the sudden death of seventy-three Israeli soldiers. This momentous event usher’s in Friedman’s moving exploration of the Israeli way of mourning and memorializing. He notes: “There are many layers of dead in this country.” The new top layer created on February 4, 1997 is, for Matti Friedman, “the beginning of the end” of the security zone enterprise. It forced the questions “what were these young people doing here?” and “what did they die for?” – questions for which no answers both honest and uplifting were available.
The accident changed nothing but the people. A kibbutznik woman named Bruria started a movement of mother’s to end what seemed to her and those who joined her an insane policy. Soon after her cause began taking shape, it was Matti Friedman’s turn to serve his country on the Pumpkin outpost.
Part Three describes Friedman’s time of duty in the security zone, really not very far from his parents’ home in northern Israel. Here, as elsewhere, the author’s journalistic and literary gifts provide a kind of pleasure within a series of observations and experiences brimming with pain. He gives us the sensations of daily life, whether under attack or within the numbness of routine. As one would expect, Friedman traces the short route from innocence to experience.
“It is hard to recall how little you once knew, and harder to admit it. I understood that we were Israeli soldiers, that our enemies were Arab fighters, whom we called terrorists, and that we should kill them before they killed us: that the battlefield was this place, Lebanon. I knew I couldn’t let my friends down. That was it. Matters seemed fairly clear to me on the first day.”
In the deceptively simple prose, readers cannot help feeling that a much more complex, nuanced response will build and build. And it does.
This section includes a careful portrait of Nabatieh, the nearby Lebanese town. It also contains the delightful story of the religious soldiers who visited the Pumpkin with blowtorches in order to prepare the place for Passover. Friedman brings to life a cast of characters, his comrades in arms, and he lets us know how it feels when Hezbollah gunners are firing at you.
All is beautifully textured in a tone that often seems oxymoronic: hard nostalgia. Part Four takes us beyond the end of Matti Friedman’s time at the Pumpkin, and then records the shutting down of the security zone. He also offers us a stirring vignette on his more or less secret return to the Pumpkin as a Canadian tourist, and then leaves us wondering about what this story tells us about the future.
Indeed, looking back from the situation of today’s Middle East to the abandonment of the security outposts, one can piece together the accumulating future that gave us the Arab Spring and its demise. Where have all the flowers – the oleanders – gone? Why?
This is an instant classic of Israeli literature and of war literature.
The review appears in the September 2016 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).