A Kingdom of Children in a Dystopian Israel

This sometimes mythical tale about children – albeit aged 18 and up who have been granted the right to kill and be killed – is dark and surprisingly funny.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu. Hogarth Books, 338 pages, $24

Maybe it’s just me a father with one son recently released from the army and another one about to go in but the absence of parents, or responsible adults in general, in “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” hit me hard. I kept thinking of the animated-film versions of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips, where grown-ups are only depicted from the waist down, as pairs of legs, and who, when they speak, emit only gibberish. Charlie Brown and Lucy, Linus and Schroeder have to fend for themselves and figure out life on their own.

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And so it is in the world inhabited by Yael, Lea and Avishag, the three young women who are at the center of Shani Boianjiu’s novel, and who alternate at providing most of its narration. It is a kingdom of children, albeit children aged 18 and up who have been granted the right to kill and be killed, which makes “The People of Forever,” though very funny, a whole lot blacker than “Peanuts.” The three friends grew up together in a small community near Israel’s border with Lebanon (the writer is from Kfar Vradim, the town established by high-tech entrepreneur Stef Wertheimer three decades ago, which fits that description), and they remain friends even as they head off to serve in different units of the Israel Defense Forces, and then disperse around the country and the world. They reunite toward the end of the book, in a surreal, almost-apocalyptic near-future, for reserve duty during a war with Syria.

Over and over in the book, which is more of a series of linked episodes than a fully plotted novel, the young people confront difficult moral choices and emotionally trying dilemmas that it’s not so nice to contend with on one’s own, and yet it is only in the final pages that we encounter a positive depiction of a parent a warm being who is actively involved in her daughter’s life, even if she is a “dim bulb,” according to the daughter, Yael. Until that point, the adults in the girls’ lives remain faceless and nameless, and burdened with enough problems of their own that they seem to be little more than shadow presences in their children’s existence.

The chapter about Yael and her mother is really an epilogue a reminiscence by the daughter about the period that preceded her conscription, when she was so laden with anxiety (“I was afraid of the future,” she tells us) that she had resumed an obsessive-compulsive habit from childhood of snapping her fingers under her chin, and insisted on sharing her mother’s bed with her each night.

By this point in the book, we know well why Yael (who has until now come off as so confident and self-possessed) was right to be afraid of the future, and why Avishag has suffered from debilitating depression, and can even begin to imagine what drove Lea to lead a criminally sadistic shadow life while pursuing a career as a gentle and accommodating sandwich chef to the most eccentric of Tel Aviv’s citizens. (She works behind the counter at the We Don’t Judge kiosk, where patrons can ask for any combination of ingredients on their sandwiches, as long as it doesn’t require a violation of the law. “Now baby cakes,” says one regular to Lea, “I want my yellow peppers roasted for two minutes and my red peppers roasted for ten minutes, and I want the edges cut off from the turkey slice.” And she complies with a smile.)

After all, these women, and the rest of their cohort of young Israelis in the book and in reality have been raised in a society in a state of ongoing war. Then, when they reach age 18, they are sent off to the army, where they are taking orders from people not more than a year or two older than they are before becoming the ones giving the orders themselves.

Lest you get the wrong impression, “The People of Forever” is neither a preachy book nor an overtly political one. Post-political is more like it. None of the narrators ever stop to reflect on questions like “What’s become of the Jewish state?” and the author told me she doesn’t want readers to mistake her for a left-winger (see box). Nor is her novel a nationalistic apologia for Israel.

Intuitive talent

It may seem unlikely that an Israeli who writes her fiction in English, and whose publisher has made much of the fact that she served in the Israel Defense Forces even distributing a publicity photo of her in uniform lacked self-consciousness when she sat down to write. But I tend to believe Shani Boianjiu when she says she didn’t intend to impart a “message,” even if there’s little doubt that readers will find many different messages embedded in the text. Her talent seems so intuitive, and her dark vision appears to have flown from her pen so naturally, that my guess is she didn’t spend much time contemplating the implications of her work while she was immersed in the act of creation. Which could explain why she became a little nervous afterwards, when she began to contemplate readers’ reactions.

I responded to the book as a father, as someone who couldn’t bear that the girls, while still in high school, had to be subjected to (even if they didn’t witness it directly) the suicide of the brother of one of them. I cringed at the casualness with which they went through sexual partners in the army, not just under the noses of their commanders, but often with the commanders themselves. Mainly, I was saddened, even if unsurprised, that in their not-infrequent encounters with Palestinians, the girls didn’t seem to perceive the political dimensions of the conflict they themselves were immersed in, whether from a right-wing perspective or a leftist one. But there is no politics on the horizon in “The People of Forever,” only war and more war. And Boianjiu’s characters are too busy living their lives to be doing much reflecting on them.

“The People of Forever” may be dark and grim, but it does not in any way lack humor. Shani Boianjiu is a very funny writer, and she places her characters in some drolly amusing situations, as when the three high-school friends stalk a neighbor they have decided is responsible for the death of a neighborhood tree. They post signs with a crayon depiction of him and the text, “Murderer of an Olive Tree: Wanted Dead or Alive.” Or when Avishag, who is checking cars entering Israel at the Egyptian border, wonders why a suspected smuggler calls her “Dude”: Maybe, “someplace along the line, it had become understood that everyone was a dude of some sort, and she was the only one who had missed it.”

The book is particularly gloomy if, as she seems to have done, Boianjiu just wrote what she felt, without filtering or striking a pose, since what emerged was a depiction of a lonely land where the kids have to grow up quickly, and nobody’s keeping watch over them. Which, when you think about it, could ultimately be said to describe the reality here. What gives Boianjiu’s work an extra jolt is that every so often, without warning, she crosses the line delimiting reality to present a surreal, often grotesque vision. We know that it can’t be real, but we aren’t sure just when the line was crossed. Suddenly, though, there’s a feeling of the oxygen having been sucked from the room.

This is what happens when Lea’s boss and boyfriend, Ron, follows her home from the sandwich shop, against her instructions, to her “one-and-a-half bedroom” apartment and discovers what she’s keeping in that extra half-bedroom. (“Please, don’t judge,” writes Boianjiu, slyly referencing the name of the restaurant where the two met.) And it’s what happens when, toward the book’s end, Lea, Yael and Avishag volunteer for reserve duty at a base in the Negev so that they can be there when their male comrades who have survived return from the fighting up north in Syria. But when the men return, they and the women engage in a sado-masochistic power game whose exact meaning is unclear, but which neither group seems able or willing to stop: “The boys came and the boys took and the boys came and the women were what they were not. It was very hard to do.”

The writing is often vague, sometimes even ungrammatical, and we aren’t sure if it’s because English is not the author’s native tongue and her copy editor fell down on the job, or if that is simply the sound of Boianjiu’s voice; I’m inclined to assume the latter. For example, what are we to make of this sentence?: “People died in the after war: 6,422 civilians and combatants in Syria the following month.” Is an “after war” like an after-party? And those fatalities, were they Syrians or Israelis, or both? It’s passages like these that give “The People of Forever” a mythical texture at times.

That mythical quality may explain why it is hard to distinguish among Lea, Avishag and Yael. We learn about their respective ethnic backgrounds, and their army assignments are described in detail, but I found myself constantly paging back and forth between chapters for reminders to help me keep them straight. And if we can’t always identify them, it certainly will be hard to identify with them.

This is a painful book to read, not least because of the distance that exists between us and the narrative, but also because it offers no catharsis or resolution. Our three protagonists are alive at the end, and they all seem to have found their places in the world, but we have no assurance that things are going to work out for them or for us. But it is a powerful piece of writing, one that, through its hyperrealistic images, gives us a disturbing sense of what it’s like to come of age in the Jewish state of today. The People of Forever actually have very good reason to be afraid.

David B. Green edits the Books section for Haaretz English Edition.

Female soldiers at an Israeli army swearing-in ceremony.
Emil Salman