A Writer Dressed in Khaki

`Even if I write an instruction manual for a washing machine, it will always contain humor, and it will always contain the Holocaust. It's a part of me,' says Lt.-Col. Amir Gutfreund, winner of the 2003 Sapir Prize for Literature.

Shiri Lev-Ari
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Shiri Lev-Ari

Author Amir Gutfreund, winner of the 2003 Sapir Prize for Literature, believes it's not easy to be an Israeli Jew. "What a burden it is to be born both Jewish and Israeli - it's like carrying five watermelons on your back all your life," says Gutfreund, who won the NIS 150,000 prize awarded by the Mifal Hapayis National Lottery for his book "Ahuzot Hahof" [Seaside Estates], published this year by Zmora Bitan. When asked at the award ceremony about the source of the suffering from which his writing emerges, he replies with typical humor: "Hapoel Haifa. That's my soccer team, and it really makes me suffer. What a lousy team."

Gutfreund, 39, was born in Haifa to Holocaust survivors. He has a Masters degree in applied mathematics and operations research from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and serves as a lieutenant colonel in the air force. Gutfreund, who is married with a two-year-old daughter, lives in Givatayim. He said yesterday he intends to donate a substantial part of the prize money to Kav La'oved, the non-profit workers' hotline that addresses problems encountered by foreign workers. "That's directly related to the fact that I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor," he says. "I have a great deal of sensitivity toward people who are without rights, defenseless and helpless."

Gutfreund is considered a promising face on the local literature landscape. His first book published two years ago, "Shoa Shelanu" (Our Holocaust), dealt with one of the Israeli society's most fraught topics with humor and irony, and was well received. His second book, "Ahuzot Hahof" (Zmora Bitan 2002), did not abandon either the irony or the Holocaust. "Even if I write an instruction manual for a washing machine, it will always contain humor, and it will always contain the Holocaust. It's part of me," Gutfreund says.

"Ahuzot Hahof" is composed of short stories about a series of colorful figures on the verge of insanity, and deals with the large and small questions of life. The stories move between Tel Aviv penthouses and seaside estates in France, and their heroes embark on journeys of confrontation with the major forces of existence - God, the expectations of society, and sometimes even the National Lottery - confrontations whose painful conclusion is known in advance.

How did a military man, who dons an army uniform every morning, decide to be a writer? "I have been writing since the age of 20," he says. "I grew up in lower Haifa, a place where there weren't, to put it mildly, many books in people's homes. Even when I began to write, I didn't feel that there was a connection between me and the people whose names appear on book jackets in Steimatsky's [book store]. I wasn't anxious to publish anything. But in 1995, my mother died, and then I felt a need to publish a book that would include the dedication: `To my late mother' on the first page. A Polish child. That was the moment when I wanted to publish books. The bug entered and it hasn't left since."

Gutfreund doesn't see any conflict between the military context in which he serves and artistic freedom; not even when he submits his books for military censorship before they are published. "It doesn't undermine my freedom as a writer. The censors have never said a thing to me," he says. "The army in Israel is so closely connected to the people, that there is no chance that they will do that. There are many creative and sensitive people surrounding me in the army. I don't feel that the military community is less creative than the literary community."

He defines himself as a patriot who loves Israel. "I am happy that we live in a country of our own and speak Hebrew," he says. "All my life they lectured me, `Do you know what it is to live without a country, without a language, without rights?' For my father, a Holocaust survivor, it's very moving that his son is a writer in Hebrew. In a secret place in my heart, I'm even proud of it."

The panel of judges for this year's prize included chair Yitzhak Livni, Prof. Ruth Kerton Blum, Prof. Nurit Guvrin, poet Meron H. Isaacson, writer and journalist Ruvik Rosenthal, Dr. Lily Rattok and Prof. Nissim Calderon. In their decision, they wrote that Gutfreund "brings to Hebrew literature a unique and surprising voice, which he has built through a mature and precise style. His language is both simple and elevated, and on every page of his books there is measured and effective irony. `Ahuzot Hahof' dealt with people who have been severed from time and place, have given up the ideal of normalcy, and have devoted their lives to a strange issue that is important to them, a subversive idea or a hopeless love. Gutfreund invents amusing and hair-raising plots, repeatedly breaks the boundaries between the fantastic and the everyday, tests the passages and the encounter between Europe and Israel, and with a smile crosses back and forth over the seam line between the living and the dead."