Khirbet Khizeh is S. Yizhar’s fictionalized account of life as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1948-49 war, and was published shortly after the war’s end. In this new translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, Khirbet Khizeh takes on a renewed poetic significance, instilling the novellas enduring relevance for contemporary culture.
The narrator starts his account by noting that the event he is about to describe “happened a long time ago, but it has haunted [him] ever since.” He talks of the passage of time and his once hopeful idea that such a passage might have healed his sorrow and despair. However, it appears that nothing of the sort has come to pass. He takes readers back to the beginning, back to his own mindset before he was deeply disturbed by his and his cavalry’s actions.
It is a “splendid winter morning” the day that the troop “cheerfully making [its] way” across the countryside. As they are travelling, they come across the village of Khirbet Khizeh which they are told, by radio, that they must attack in order to dispossess the Arab’s who live there of their land. The infantry must, however, wait for the command do so. And so they wait. They grow restless, sleepy, and confrontational with one another as time seems to interminably pass for them. The narrator feels the pressure of wanting to act, for as he notes, in idleness “thoughts would stealthy creep in.” And “when the thoughts came, troubles began;” nobody want thinking soldiers, so “better not to start thinking” he resolves.
The indifference, lack of concern and general passivity of the soldiers continues as they talk and laugh of slaughtering a donkey for the fun of seeing just how long it would keep munching on grass after being shot three times. “What incredible vitality” the wireless operator observes. This scene foreshadows the stance of observance that the soldiers, and most especially Yizhar’s protagonist, takes on as the novella progresses.
Finally the group is “rescued from [their] distress” and given the green light to open fire on Khirbet Khizeh. The attack begins, and the rest of the piece details the narrator’s indecisions, frustrations and doubts concerning the rights of the Jews and the rationality of their actions. He develops a sudden sense of compassion for his enemy: mostly graying men, steadfast women and crying children – none of whom retaliate as they are herded from their homes. The narrator recognizes this change of heart in himself, but notes that at the time he “didn’t want to stand out from the others in anyway,” and so he tries his best to keep quiet.
He is, however, eventually compelled to speak out to his commander Moishe, that “it’s not right” for the Jews to displace the Arabs when they are so defenseless and passive. Moishe though is entirely indifferent and points out that if the Jews were in the Arab’s position right now, the Jews would be dead. He warns Yizhar’s narrator that if they don’t take care of the Arabs now, the group will present bigger issues for the Jews in the future. The narrator continues to argue with himself, but ultimately decides “this is war!” Though he does not by any means fully convince himself that his actions are just, he has at least subsumed his outward expression of guilt and questioning beneath the guise of wartime allowances.
As David Shulman notes in the afterword though, Yizhar’s expression of “all is well in war” gains greater irony in the fact that not much has changed in Israel now that the war is over. People are still being displaced, people are still hating and killing one another, and yet the excuse of war can no longer be used. Though it might appear that the novel bends on a moralistic theme, Shulman notes that Yizhar’s narrative hinges more on choice than on morality. Perhaps these choices are necessarily tethered to morality as they are intimately bound to the notion of peer pressure both in the form of people and ideologies.
The text spans a mere 144 pages, and Yizhar propels readers directly into both the internal and external action of the novella, keeping them there throughout. Usually with translated text, there is a profound sense of loss and sadness surrounding the physical words on the page because they are merely representations of the original words used in the native language. De Lange and Dweck, however, capture with verve the poetic essence of the text beautifully and aptly. Yizhar’s very Dickens-like sentences build into paragraphs that wind around your heart, pulling you forward into the action, the distress, and the ambivalence that characterizes his work.
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review of the text.