Thursday, 18 August 2016

Pumpkin flowers by Matti Friedman

This is an OK book. It's not a brilliant book by any stretch, but it's not bad either. It's well written, some of it is compelling, but it is blighted by two major problems.

The first is the structure. The book is essentially split into four parts. The first recounts the experiences of a young soldier, Avi, whose reminiscences are gleaned from diary entries and letters he wrote home. The second is based on the campaign by the mothers of some of the fallen for Israel to pull back from the Lebanon. The third part deals with the author's experiences of the army, and in particular his service in the base atop the Pumpkin, the hill which grants the book it's title. Finally, the fourth recounts the author's efforts to return to the Lebanon incognito after he has left the Israeli army and see some of the sights from the other side. The third and fourth parts are most compelling. The first not so much. Perhaps because I'm not Israeli and have never travelled to Israel, I found the third section dealing with the mothers' campaign a little difficult to relate to. More generally, I found this disjointed structure prevented the book from flowing and feel it would be better had the author concentrated more on fleshing out his own experiences.

The second major problem to blight this book is perhaps a bit more serious. And that's that not much happens. In some ways it reminded me of Jarhead, another war biography to garner critical acclaim (the Gulf War of 1991), in which I couldn't see the fuss. Both describe much sitting around waiting to engage the enemy and nothing much else besides. Now of course I'm aware of the problem here. I've never served in the military, of any nation. I'm fully aware that I'm writing this review from the comfort of my sofa. A perfectly valid critique of this review might be to point out that these books reflect the reality of war, that there is much sitting around and waiting, that it's not like the movies. And I get that, I really do. Opening my copy of Pumpkinflowers, I wasn't expecting Call of Duty, I really wasn't. But I've read a number of accounts of war and they're not all so banal. Perhaps some of those others are embellished. Perhaps it's because most of the stories that make it into print are the more sensational: special forces and the like. Perhaps both Jarhead and Pumpkinflowers describe a greater truth of a much larger body of soldiering.

And there is much to commend in this book. The author's highly dangerous journey back to Lebanon as a civilian is highly compelling, and while he had a Canadian passport, had it been discovered that he was an Israeli citizen and a former soldier at that, his life may well have been forfeit. But equally, there is some that grates. On the whole the author keeps politics out of intruding on his recollections of military life, but on the occasions that it does, his analysis is deeply depressing. He claims that the Israeli citizenry has all but given up on peace with its Arab neighbours and lays the failure of the peace process squarely on their shoulders. No mention of illegal settlements here, or of the Israeli's State's constant efforts to undermine anything even approaching territorial integrity for any future Palestinian entity. And when he gets to Lebanon, he seems oddly incurious as to what makes the poor Shi'ite communities that form the bedrock of Hezbollah tick.

Once again this is a biography and this might just reflect his honest opinions and outlook. And who am I to say he's wrong? But like the author, I'm only human, and thus can only review a book on the basis of my own perceptions and opinions. And that said, for the reasons outlined above, I can only really give this book three stars.

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