Book Review

On the Wings of Pain: How Does One Go on Living After Losing a Child?

‘Based on a true story’ and written many years after the fact, Avi Valentin's very personal novel is a page-turner about how a family grapples with loss. One reads it with bated breath

A deserted beach in Haifa, Israel
A deserted beach in Haifa, Israel Hagai Frid

“Beseter Knafayim” (In the Shelter of Wings), by Avi Valentin, Matar Books (Hebrew), 228 pages, 85 shekels

How does one go on living after losing a child? That gigantic question, which has no answer, is asked midway through Avi Valentin’s work of fiction, “In the Shelter of Wings.” The person asking the question is the narrator’s mother, and the child she lost, Moli, is the narrator’s brother. Moli died at age 20, a young soldier in a navy diving course who drowned in an accident in the shallow waters of Haifa harbor. He shouldn’t have been diving at all – he suffered from asthma, but didn’t want to admit to being weak or fearful, and so kept it a secret. And when his partner in his final dive panicked, Moli was left alone under the water.

“Beseter Knafayim” (In the Shelter of Wings), by Avi Valentin, Matar Books (Hebrew)
Courtesy

The whole military establishment is guilty of his death, but only his family must bear the pain. “Why did I join up?” Moli asks in an imaginary conversation in the book.

Valentin has written a book about bereavement and how a family goes about coping with it. He describes the way the news of the son/brother’s death is conveyed, the shock, the grief, the coming to terms, the process of learning how to live without him.

The book evokes the moments that remain in the memory, the images and the music left by a young man of 20, as life goes on after his passing.

It is written more than 30 years after the death, and that disparity in time is critically important. Many of the characters are no longer alive. By this point, everything should have ended, the healing should have been completed – but that did not happen. The pain is the same pain, the wounds are still fresh, and Valentin observes them unflinchingly.

The title he chose for the work is drawn from the “El Malei Rahamim” prayer for the soul of the departed, which is recited at funerals and includes the words: “May his resting place be paradise, therefore may the all-merciful one shelter him in the cover of his wings.”

The book is a page-turner, and one reads it with bated breath. At several points, particularly toward the end, I cried silently. My tears fell for a young man whose whole life should have been ahead of him but who more than three decades 40 years earlier, and also for his brother, for whom the pain of that death has not abated.

The book has several layers. The music of the Greek singer Kostas Hatzis and Beethoven’s Third Symphony are important elements in its fabric; they are the most effective of the medicines with which Moli’s brother tries to assuage the grief.

Another layer involves the encounter with the sea: Will the family of the drowned young man ever be able to enjoy a refreshing dip in the sea? Stepping into its waters, will they be able to forget the death trap it was for Moli, even for a moment? While swimming, will they be able to open their eyes and look into the depths without seeing the lost brother or son?

A few of the book’s speakers are friends of Moli’s, such as soldiers who served with him or girlfriends. But the dominant and central voice is that of his brother, Yoav, who is five years older. As an officer who took part in wars, his disillusionment with the military system is a major theme of the book.

This is not a political work, but it has broad implications within the context of Israeli society. The bereavement, the encounter with the military, the exposure to the way the navy investigates itself – all have great significance for and impact on Moli’s family, and indeed on the lives of all of us here.

The cover tells us that the book is “based on a true story.” It’s told in the first person, but the narrator’s name is Yoav Levinson. I leave it to each reader to decide how far removed he is from Avi Valentin. However, a quick search on the internet turns up – among 420 navy dead over the years – the name of Sgt. Moli (Moshe) Valentin, who died on June 20, 1974. The thin veneer of fiction disintegrates and disappears a few minutes after one starts reading.

Ice-cold voice

Avi Valentin was a journalist with Haaretz for some 20 years. He became well known in the 1970s after he published a series of powerful articles about Israeli organized-crime families. “In the Shelter of Wings” is his fifth work of fiction.

The author’s writing is at its best in the chapters that verge on a journalistic investigation. Here, the spotlight is turned on one prominent character, who is certainly not fictional: Benjamin Telem, who served for decades as a senior officer in the Israeli navy. In the 1970s, during the period covered by the book, he was its commander.

The book describes a disturbing incident. Two hours after learning about his brother’s death, the narrator sees Telem in his car on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway, and signals him to pull over. He asks the rear admiral to open his window and tells him, distraughtly, “Sir! This morning we were informed that my brother, Moshe Levinson, perished in a diving accident in Haifa harbor. We don’t know what happened”

Telem removes his sunglasses and says, in an ice-cold voice, “For this you stopped me in the middle of the highway?”

Subsequently, it turns out that the diving accident was not investigated properly. No one, other than the dead soldier himself, is deemed to have been responsible, much less sent to prison. Everyone is good, pure as the driven snow – like the navy’s white uniforms. Telem died nine years ago, aged 80; Moli’s parents, we’re told, died years before.

The dead soldier’s brother is left to go on coping. “Not only did Moli die,” Valentin writes. “Two hours after I was informed of his death, the commander of the navy fired off a short volley of words that destroyed my loyalty to the army. It passed away and died by the roadside, in a ditch of stagnant water, on the highway to Haifa. Those few words influenced my life more than all the dead I saw in the Yom Kippur War. I will never forgive Rear Admiral Benjamin Telem, the navy commander, for those words he spoke; the IDF for not deploring him for having spoken them; or myself, for sparing him.”

“In the Shelter of Wings” left me dumbstruck, without words. Even if the only reason for publishing this book was the revelation, so very late in the day, of this awful callousness (of whose veracity I have no doubt) – it’s good that Valentin’s book was published.

To move ahead somehow in the text, and in life, I wipe away the tears, have a cup of coffee and glance at four books on the shelf opposite me. Three of them I read in a tank in Sinai, around the time that Moli was killed: “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (covered with numberless grease stains); “Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut (falling apart from use); and “The Good Soldier Svejk,” by Jaroslav Hasek (pages left transparent from automotive oil). Alongside them is William Saroyan’s “The Adventures of Wesley Jackson” (which I read long afterward).

All four novels deal with the army in one simple way: They are gut-bustingly funny. Sometimes they’re very cynical, sometimes ironic, but always witty. I laughed when I read them. I laughed thanks to the marvelous writing. And I laughed at myself, because there, too, in the tank in Sinai, I knew that I resembled exactly some of the dumb fictional characters, who see the wrong and do nothing to extricate themselves from it.

Avi Valentin doesn’t have the privilege of Vonnegut and Heller. His book is a chronicle of bereavement, and there’s nothing at all amusing about the loss it describes, even after 40 years.

The hope derives from a different source. Chapter 36 of Valentin’s book is devoted to a Kostas Hatzis song, lyrics by Sofia Tsotou, which tell us, “When you look from up above, the world looks like a picture, / And you took it too seriously, too seriously.”