Arts & Culture

Israeli Fiction: ‘Form 630′–an excerpt from the novel “Wild North”

The schlemiel–that bumbling, anxious, and cosmically inept antihero of much American Jewish literature–rarely finds his place in Israeli writing. Instead, modern Hebrew literature celebrates the mythic sabra, the altruistic, brave, and resourceful native-born Israeli. This is especially true in fiction … Read More

By / August 7, 2008

The schlemiel–that bumbling, anxious, and cosmically inept antihero of much American Jewish literature–rarely finds his place in Israeli writing. Instead, modern Hebrew literature celebrates the mythic sabra, the altruistic, brave, and resourceful native-born Israeli. This is especially true in fiction set against the backdrop of Israel’s many wars. So it is significant that Shimon Riklin’s novel, set in the “wild north” during the first Lebanon War, features a schlemiel protagonist: Yakov Zilberstein is the IDF’s perfect clerking machine. Riklin’s satiric take on military ethos and army bureaucracy follows in the tradition of Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, making his work easily accessible to American readers. –Adam Rovner, translations editor

1.

“Motherfucker!!!”

Yakov jumped, but the driver’s attention was elsewhere. He spat out a curse and slammed on the gas pedal of the orange Fiesta, which sputtered and struggled up the road to Jerusalem. The wipers were barely able to push aside the rain, and the windshield kept fogging up. The driver pounded the wheel, hoping the blows would get the car moving. “I hope you’re not in a rush,” he muttered.

“I . . . I actually . . .” Yakov began, but immediately conceded for fear of burdening the considerate driver who had picked him up. “No, no,” he said, “It’s ok, I’m in no rush at all,” and turned to look out the window again. After some moaning and groaning the rust-orange hunk of tin succeeded in getting to the straightaway that came after Sho’evah, and then began hurtling down the hill. Yakov looked into the gorge full of milky-white clouds that spilled out onto the road, and it seemed to him as if any moment now the clouds would carry the car upward, sailing of its own free will, no earth under its wheels, until they, Yakov and the anxious driver whose grin now spread from ear to ear, would hover over Ein-Hemed, take off over the Castel, and a few moments later, land in Jerusalem.

You’re getting carried away again, Yakov chastised himself, and looked straight ahead at the windshield, which cleared and fogged up again. You’re flying off into the clouds again.

“I’m not saying don’t read books,” his father would repeat to him. “On the contrary, it’s important to read books. But why stories? Read geography, read math–that’ll help you in life. Stories just get in the way. And if you continue to daydream, if you float off into the clouds while you’re needed here down below, then we’re up the creek.”

Yakov fixed his eyes on the road but the milky clouds and visions of flying kept threatening to blind his spirit. With effort he pushed off the visions and tried to get back to the wet, slippery ground of reality.

It doesn’t matter anymore. He reached his hand to his neck to make sure the top button of his shirt was buttoned. I missed the exam. After that–it’s anybody’s guess what’ll happen. Now, they can send me wherever they want, near or far, to eat dust in the Negev or somewhere even worse, and Mother will be even sicker. Yakov silenced his thoughts, but his Mother’s complaining voice kept resurfacing in them, sucking the life out of him and leaving its usual discomfort in his gut.

2.

A bit over an hour ago, in the middle of the class on Form 630–the form better known as the “Complaint Form”–they came to get him.

It’s awesome, Yakov thought when he first heard of Form 630, how much power these pages contain. Here, with just a slight piece of paper, the Israeli Defense Force is able to maintain order. On the face of it, simple cheap paper, but how much power it gives to whomever fills in the empty lines, and how much sorrow and pain it brings for the one whose name, rank, and serial number are at the top. The Form was no longer just any form in his eyes, but a well-run military trial whose procedures flow together like a well-crafted piece of theater. His fingers already tingled with desire to get his hands on a Form 630, to grasp a pen and fill in the spaces above the lines with letters, and to realize–theory into practice–that the paper actually comes alive: skin, flesh, uniform, and beret, a soldier standing at attention in front of him like an accused man whose guilt screams from his face until proven otherwise. There were moments when Yakov himself was willing to be the accused. He didn’t even care what he’d be accused of as long as he got to see with his own eyes how his form would be filled out, and how the prosecutor and the judge would come together to pronounce judgment on him and turn the wheels of military justice.

Yakov was dreaming again, of course, a military dream this time, since he’d never been court-martialed, and if everything went well, as it had up to now, he never would.

At basic training Yakov finished with distinction and was promoted to Private First Class. Now, at the end of the week, he was about to finish the General Military Clerk Course, again with distinction. His commanders predicted a brilliant career as a military clerk since he was so good at filling out all the forms he had learned about in the course, and in beautiful penmanship too, just as he had done for his school’s Decorations Committee and for the lists he had prepared for the post office in Baka’a.

Except that on that rainy, wintry morning there was a problem which kept him standing at erect attention, despite the fact that his commander had already ordered him at ease. Yakov didn’t know what the problem was, but his uniformed imagination was already thinking that perhaps he had committed a felony according to the Code of Military Justice and was about to be slapped with a 630.

Yakov, who usually walked around not knowing what to do with his long arms, or how those long stilts called legs should carry his lanky body, was now standing at soldierly attention. Lieutenant Naftali, a squat man who had grown himself a gut and a huge rear end from sitting too long on the throne of command at the Military Clerk Course, was shifting behind his desk uncomfortably, as if he were sitting on an ever-rising ball of dough.

For a long while Naftali cleared his throat, rustled and ruffled the forms on the desk in front of him, tried to look up now and then at Yakov’s eyes, got up and looked out the window at the rain soaking the bald patch of grass outside his office, until finally, with all possible expressions of discomfort exhausted, the intercom buzzed.

“I told you not to disturb me,” Lieutenant Naftali thundered at his secretary, while secretly thanking her for saving him from the dark, human aspects of his job.

“Sorry, the Northern District HQ Officer of Manpower and Personnel’s secretary called. Itch’ele keeps insisting. He needs a soldier.”

It was as if Naftali had been waiting for this moment. Suddenly, his little body grew tall and widened considerably, diminishing the proportion of his rear end to his chest. Now his face glowed with charisma, and he said, quietly yet unequivocally, as if he were a full Colonel or at least a Captain, “Tell the Northern District HQ Officer of Manpower and Personnel’s secretary that even if the Chief of Staff calls me personally, and the Minister of Defense comes down here, and the Prime Minister himself calls me into his office, Lieutenant Colonel Itche’le is not getting a soldier. Period.”

Lieutenant Naftali was silent for a moment and then added softly, “No. I will tell her myself. It’s not her fault. Tell her I’ll call her later.”

“That’s what I thought.” The secretary’s voice sounded satisfied and she hung up.

Slowly Lieutenant Naftali shrank back to his natural size while he fidgeted with his fingers and hunched his shoulders, until finally, before the figure of the charismatic commander crumbled completely, he let out, “Ezra called.”

3.

Yakov shuddered. Father must have cursed out Ezra in his lousy Yiddish, and Ezra, without playing any games, called Lieutenant Colonel Motti, who spoke with Lieutenant Naftali, and now they’re kicking him out of the course and he won’t serve close to home. They’ll throw him into one of those horrible places Ezra told him about, and Mother will make everyone’s life miserable.

“You need to go home,” said Lieutenant Naftali. That’s it. And with that the course ended and Yakov’s magnificent military career in the Israeli Defense Forces was over.

“But, Sir,” Yakov was fighting for his life, “there’re only three more days to the end of the course, and I . . .”

Lieutenant Naftali looked at the soldier standing in front of him, the one they called “Brakes,” whom Ezra, the reservist at the School for Clerks, had been driving him crazy about, and for a long moment he was at a loss. He looked over the impeccably shaven Private First Class, whose shoes were every Master Sergeant’s dream, whose Class As were dangerously starched, and whose pant folds were as sharp as Aaron the military barber’s razor blades. Gradually, he came back to his senses.

“Soldier!” he barked in relief. He was more comfortable barking at his soldiers than bearing non-military messages. “You’re going home. Period.”

“Yes, Sir,” Yakov replied like a scolded child. Lieutenant Naftali flexed all of his soft muscles.

“You see, Zilberstein,” his voice cracked a bit, “Your mother is sick. Very sick. You have to go home.”

Yakov gave out a chuckle of relief and breathed easier.

“Soldier!” Lieutenant Naftali’s voice hardened again.

“No, Sir.” Yakov suddenly startled himself from fear of his commander. “You see, my mother is very attached to me, and when she misses me she gets sick, and my father goes to Ezra and Ezra calls the army, Sir.” Without being granted an answer, Yakov pressed his luck. “Maybe I can finish the course first, and then, on the weekend, maybe, I’ll go home?”

Lieutenant Naftali looked at Yakov suspiciously. Nineteen out of twenty soldiers would request leave because their grandmother had died for the third time, and here is this Brakes who not only doesn’t jump at the chance for an unexpected leave, but also haggles, almost disrespectfully, for the chance to complete the course.

“Ezra called,” said Lieutenant Naftali abruptly, “He says it’s serious.”

The intercom buzzed.

“Yes, Yafit.”

“They called from the Commemoration Committee about Zvika’s memorial room.”

Naftali’s entire body stiffened. Yakov’s too. It hadn’t been two months since Zvika was killed in Lebanon and already he was a legend at the School for Clerks. After his death all the school commanders seemed to stand taller, and even Yakov felt uncomfortable about serving close to home.

“Tell them they’ll finish painting today.” Lieutenant Naftali gathered his wits, “They can come tomorrow. We’ll organize everything.”

The monument and the memorial room for instructor Zvika, the only clerk in the history of the school to die in combat, seemed like small potatoes to Lieutenant Naftali compared to the difficulty he was having talking to the miserable trainee standing before him.

“Go home, soldier,” he commanded. “If everything is ok, come back tonight, tomorrow, whenever you can.”

“Maybe . . .”

“Go home, soldier. One-two-three, move!”

4.

The driver of the Fiesta floored the gas pedal, forcing the car to climb the Castel in third gear. “Hauls ass, eh?” he yelled.

Yakov didn’t know what to say. It seemed to him that not only wasn’t the car moving forward, but that it slid backward on the water that covered the road.

“Dammit,” the generous driver pounded the wheel again, his other hand shifted gears. “Then at least climb in second!” The car advanced all right, but at a speed no faster than a quick walk.

“You’re not laughing, eh?” said the driver suspiciously.

“Laughing?” Yakov was shocked. “I don’t know from cars,” he lied apologetically.

“Ahhh,” the driver relaxed. “Bought it yesterday. It’ll climb the Castel in fourth, he swore to me, the seller, and in another second I’ll be down to first.”

Yakov tried to calm his benefactor. “My father says that with cars you need lots of luck and lots of money.”

“You’re not laughing, eh?”

“No,” said Yakov, and let out an embarrassed snicker. What’s to laugh about? “I don’t know from cars,” he lied again. First thing you have to check is the compression, he remembered Nathan, their mechanic neighbor saying. The driver looked at Yakov, and Yakov tried as hard as he could to display a conciliatory smile. But the driver would not be placated..

“Mmmmmotherfffffuckkkkker.” The driver pulled off to the shoulder just as they got to the top of the Castel. “Get out.” Yakov stared at the driver, looking for a hint of the joke he wasn’t getting. All the generosity, the charm, and the grace that Yakov attributed to the driver were now gone. The driver’s eyes bulged with rage.

“Get out, I said!” he yelled. “Get out. You think I gave you a lift so you could laugh in my face, you piece of shit!” Yakov’s hand searched hesitantly for the handle. I wasn’t laughing, he wanted to say, not only so he wouldn’t kick him out, but also because he felt wrongly accused. But the driver’s expression made it clear he better not say another word. He got out, and the moment the door slammed, the car zoomed forward and started racing downhill.

5.

Tell me, Brakes,” asked Lieutenant Naftali after Yakov saluted and turned to leave, “this Ezra, what’s he to you?”

Yakov was embarrassed. “Ezra,” he stammered, “he . . . I worked for him at the post office.”

“Not a relative of yours?”

“No.”

“And Lieutenant Colonel Motti?”

“Sir?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Motti, the branch commander, he’s no relative either?”

“No, Sir.”

“I see.”

Yakov waited for Lieutenant Naftali to dismiss him.

“Ok,” said Lieutenant Naftali energetically, finally reclaiming the staff of command. “Next time your mother gets sick or misses you, or wants to give you a kiss, let her do it through the local HQ. And if she doesn’t like it, let her go through the Chief of Staff. Clear?”

“Yes, Sir?” Yakov didn’t understand a thing.

“Dismissed!”

When Yakov reached the turn to Motza he was already soaked and his body trembled from cold. His beret looked like an upside-down mushroom, his clothes were stained with starch, the sharp crease in his pants lost its edge, and the military sweater, which his mother told him never to take off, had rivulets dripping from it. Only his shoes still shined, deflecting the heavy raindrops onto the road.

What the hell are you thinking? Fists of frustration pounded his guts. How can I get assigned close to home if I don’t finish the course? What do you want from me? I’m only doing this for you. Everyone gets it. Why can’t you?

And everyone did get it. Even the Major at the Induction Center.

“Well, soldier,” the older, almost elderly Major tried to sound pleasant while taking Yakov’s file into his hands, “how do you like our IDF?”

Yakov didn’t know what he was expected to say.

“Is this right?” The Major showed the file to a woman dressed in civilian clothes who sat beside him. The woman nodded.

“We checked twice,” she said.

“Well, soldier,” the Major asked in a fake French accent, “what would you like to do for ze countrie?” The woman giggled.

“I need to be a clerk, Sir.”

The Major looked at Yakov, amused.

“A clerk, soldier? Why not a Commander, soldier? Why not the Chief of Staff?” Yakov was silent. “According to this, soldier,” said the Major with an air of secrecy, “you can be anything you want. Anything you want, soldier!”

Yakov wanted to say that everything was settled since Ezra had already spoken with Lieutenant Colonel Motti and with Lieutenant Naftali, but the Major attacked again.

“You never wanted to be a pilot? Or at least,” he lowered his voice while tapping the file with his finger, “a computer programmer?”

“I have to be a clerk, Sir,” Yakov repeated his recitation, not hearing the squeak of the gate opened wide for him by the Major.

“I don’t get it,” he turned to the woman. She took the file and started rifling through its many documents. “Ah,” she finally said, “here it is.”

The Major looked at the document, hemmed and hawed with disappointment, replaced all the documents into the file, and prepared to jot down his conclusions.

“Ok, ok, only son, and the Holocaust and all that, but you, soldier,” the Major was curious, “what do you want?”

Yakov wasn’t ready for this question. Again and again Ezra had coached him on the answers he needed to give every time he found himself standing in front of an officer like this Major.

“I have to be a clerk,” Yakov repeated as if possessed.

“Yes, but . . .” the Major insisted and then immediately gave up. “Yes, I suppose you really have to be a clerk,” he said dryly.

Now, in the pouring rain, thinking about the Major’s tone made him uneasy for the first time since he had enlisted. Kind at first, it had even seemed to Yakov as if he might well walk around his desk to give him a hug. And then? What did he mean, “You can be anything you want.” What’s to want? I want to be a clerk, Yakov said to himself, but the words didn’t sound quite right. I have to be a clerk. That’s it.