Roaring twenties

Roaring twenties / Yaara Shehori

Publisher: Keter Books


You think of the statue of Robert Indiana that you saw in the Israel Museum, where the Hebrew word  for LOVE deconstructed into four letters, two of which are placed on the other two. Maybe this is love, a steel statue that people are taking pictures in front of.”

 Roaring twenties is a memoir narrated in the second person, mapping the author’s  coming of age in Israel on the verge of the 21 century. Starting with the heroine’s mandatory service in the IDF, an absurd melancholic period, the book follows her accommodation in the big city, Tel Aviv, which provides her with a mixture of bad jobs and worse relationships. Although the structure of power is mostly invisible to her, she finds herself again and again bumping into it, and sometimes abusing others. The grey zones of life are starting to spread out and fill the horizon, as the medium through which she can see, hear or taste.  

The only thing that can defeat her fear of feeling an imposter (as a student, as a lover, as a daughter) is her desire to write. Literature is her founding base; the books she reads are the only manuals she knows how to follow. While her mother becomes progressively ill, literature saves her. Well, most of the times. 

“You could  have been an excellent nine years old, it’s you’re  twenties you’re keep failing.”

 Roaring twenties was highly praised for its illuminate, fresh and genuine prose and described in reviews as a “literary miracle”.

First chapter: Perhaps you’ll go to Paris

Translated by Liron Alon

You sit with your back to the window during the long hours of personal interviews, but even so, you can see the light is fading. A skeleton frame of a building stands behind the recruiting office, in the downtown of Haifa. Perhaps they’ll never finish building it. When you look behind you, construction workers are standing on the scaffolding. You can all see them from the interview rooms, from the bathrooms. But you yourselves are invisible, you wear sunglasses. One day, the building contractor’s son will come-in for a personal interview. He’ll sit across from one of you, in one of the rooms, and will say “Oh, you’re the peeing soldier girls”. And it’s true. It is you.

You were chosen by a voice-and-appearance committee, and for five weeks, after completing women’s basic training, you learned how to sweeten your voice, almost to a whisper. You were ordered to never ask why. It only creates hostility. People shut down when faced with why. Seal up like a wall with no windows. If one of you says, with a sugar-coated voice, “But the eyes are the windows to the soul”, another one of you mumbles, “Not window, mirror. Mirrors of the soul”. The training team momentarily relents and explains that this mirror (yes, they allow thinking in similes, you’re well mannered-girls, you were raised on metaphors) reflects only the one posing the questions, and she, we’re sorry to say, is not so much of interest to the army.

The training course is long, and you learn to define the world around you with simple, efficient phrases. It is during this time that your mother is caught in a silent depression, it wraps around her like a carnivorous plant. If anyone asks about your home, you forgo the plant, and instead use one of those one dimensional phrases, which, like a sticker, should be able to peel off, yet it stays glued on forever. “I have a problematic home, and it’s taking its toll”, you say. No more questions are asked.

You learn to be a human tape measure. The graduations are drawn on you when you lie down to sleep, and when you arise, you discover the tape measure gauges mostly other measures. The most profound knowledge you gain, is that measure itself is subject to change. You learn to speed your pulse and raise your temperature with nothing but the sheer force of anxiety. During basic training, your brow was burning, and you were the only one who received leave for the weekend. You went to a party where your classmates stood plastered against the wall, only half of them already soldiers. You wore a sweater that kept dropping off your shoulders, and told anyone you spoke to, “you won’t believe what it’s like over there”, as if you’ve just returned from a penal colony.  Your boyfriend’s best friend, Natan, kissed your shoulder. Like in a riddle where you need to match chairs to people, you suddenly realized you were left without a chair, and that your boyfriend’s friend is not your friend. You saw the surprise turn into pain in your boyfriend’s eyes, standing across the room. And you very slowly walked away, like you would walk in a dream. Your mouth filled with cotton wool, or silkworms. Perhaps that’s why you kept quiet. To produce the finest silk in the world you need sickening larva, mute cocoons, you need to toss life into boiling water. The silk comes in place of the butterfly, you already understood this while everyone in the Kibbutz’ children-dormitory grew silkworms under their beds. But the worms never became butterflies, and none of you have ever seen silk.

During the training course, they sent your class on security-duty in Jerusalem bus stops, to protect the peaceful commuters from suicide bombers. The number 18 bus blew up twice within a week. Nails were added to the explosive device, to increase damage. You didn’t go

t to Jerusalem by   choice. You were in the army only for less than a month, but you’ve signed yourselves off as army property, as you will later state, not without a hint of sadism, to every new recruit: “You belong to the army now”. You sat in bus stops for days on end. Waiting for busses. Spying for suspicious visages, asymmetrical silhouettes, hidden objects under jackets. In fact, none of you were given any clear instructions, no clearer than they would give green-uniformed mannequins, stationed in bus stops to calm the masses. A picture of one of the girls was taken for the newspaper, she was sitting next to a soldier from the IDF’s Technological College. You passed the paper between you, reading the caption out loud: “Two soldiers discussing love”. She wasn’t even talking to him, she kept explaining, but that didn’t matter. After all, you were reading about yourselves in the newspaper. It was so cold. The rifles were old, and you didn’t really know how to use yours. No one assumed you will.

If any of you were caught by the rain, you would warm your hands under the hand dryer in a near-by café, and then run back to your station. At first light, a young Arab man climbed off a beverage delivery truck and handed you a strawberry banana soda. He smiled at you and you didn’t know why, but the canned drink had the sweetest taste in the world. Two of your friends caught an escaped prisoner. You all laughed terribly at their excessive soldiership, ignoring the one girl that cried in the evening, hugging her duffle bag, mumbling that she didn’t want to die. You didn’t understand what she was afraid of. Perhaps the rain dulled your survival skills. Perhaps you can’t blame the rain.

When you’ll tell this to people overseas, they’ll ask you what you were supposed to do if you did catch a suicide bomber. You will reply, with a straight face, “Hug him”. The story will take on a life of its own, and when you’ll hear it again, you yourself won’t even know what was fact and what was fiction, and did anyone really order you to hug a Palestinian man wearing an explosive belt. Ascend to the heavens in an embrace, act as a human shield of love with a rifle that doesn’t fire. But nobody died during the weeks you were stationed there.

After basic training, after you finished the training course, after the frozen Jerusalem bus stops. After the tents caved in on you during a storm, after you learned how to interview IDF’s elite and IDF’s already future inmates, after someone gave you a box of cigarettes because you sewed a button on his shirt, it was as if for a moment you were a man and a woman in a Hemingway novel, the days are all alike. The sky stretches low, each day you go back to the Kibbutz, each day your dad picks you up at the mall they built at the Krayot, where an old ATA textile factory once stood, and had closed. When you call him, first from a payphone and later from a mobile phone, he picks you up in a tiny pickup truck, taking you back to the Kibbutz through the fields. Sometimes your dog sits in the back, her eyes hidden in a thick coat of black curls, rendering her blind. She follows him everywhere anyway. And when she’s not in the truck, she lies on the grass opposite the house, and the crows gather around her. “She’s talking to the crows”, your father says and laughs. Sometimes you think she hold the reincarnated soul of a woman. You think she was a nun, pure, and clean of carnal lust. She appears in one of your dreams, writing with her dog paws on the grass, like Io from the Metamorphoses, turned into a heifer by Zeus. Again and again she writes her name in the grass as if it was dirt. 

You all waste the daytime hours inside the recruiting office, leaving only when its dark. Seeing as you’re wearing sunglasses, you push them up like headbands, as if supporting hair arranged in peculiar haircuts. The glasses placed on your heads speak of leisure and sun, claiming it’ll only be a minute until you go outside and they’ll be of necessity, although it is dark again. You spend hours on end talking to young men. Crossing your arms, you ask them what they would like to do in service, how many times a week are they late for school, how many friends do they have, at what age did they learn how to tie their own shoelaces, what are they afraid of. “Did you ever go to the movies by yourself?” you ask, “Do you have suicidal thoughts?” “Did you ever think of killing yourself?” You’re closed in small rooms with them, switching on a red light to indicate the room is taken, ignoring the connotation someone always loudly expresses, “What, is this the red lights district?” You lean forward and smile. You have time. You can trust me, you each say with no words, you wait and smile.

You’re allowed to ask anything. In fact, it’s recommended you do so. There is no dove or a handkerchief, and yet they always answer. Everything. It’s magic. The graffiti “why did I ever enlist” doesn’t exist yet, but it ought to. Yet, you don’t dare leaving the army, discharging, using quiet means. Your mother served for four months before her own mother had her out, in dubious ways. You dictate a sentence to the recruits, which opens with the words: “Crooked and meandering paths”. You really don’t understand how anyone can confuse Cs and Ks. Your horizons are that narrow. 

You will remember the fair-eyed boy, whose application form arrived at the interviewers’ room covered in exclamation marks. He placed his boxes of cigarettes and matches on the table between you. You said he couldn’t smoke in here, but that wasn’t what he was intending on doing. The two boxes were enough for him to create a simple blueprint of the house. In which room his mother was sleeping when his father had hit her. Where he himself was standing when he was trying to loosen his father’s grip. You did ask, didn’t you. Where the hallway was, where he was standing, with his father behind him. Where he ran out through, to breath (he ran out to the yard, there wasn’t an extra box for that), and then to go back in. When he understood she was dead. Months pass, and you interview a girl who found her mother shot dead, death really is opulent around you, and you never refuse to listen to the singsong way in which the teens talk of the dead. When she speaks, you cry. You think you can see the mother. For a moment you were standing there. You ask about the blossoms on the sides of the road, about the smell of grass in the yard. Its better if you’d have kept quiet.