23 Jun Prospect review (UK)

By Ben Judah

June 16, 2016

The Hebrew of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is very different from the kind I was taught at synagogue. Wounded soldiers are “flowers.” Dead soldiers are “oleanders,” “their dicks were broken.”

“Lebanon,” for the Israeli writer Matti Friedman’s generation, means not just a country—but also the muddied experience of their youth as military conscripts. Basil, Crocus, Cypress and Red Pepper were among the floral names the IDF gave to its outposts in southern Lebanon, a territory it occupied from 1982 until 2000. The Pumpkin was one of those forts and the one in which Friedman served.

Books by soldier-writers on Middle Eastern wars are rare, such books with literary ambition exceedingly so. Friedman, appointing himself “the only historian of the Pumpkin in any language,” writes from many dimensions: he becomes the biographer of a fallen 20-year-old comrade, he becomes a military-analyst of his war, he describes his own story and finally morphs into a travel writer, sneaking into Lebanon to see that the Pumpkin, abandoned, is now just another hill.

Pumpkinflowers is a sad, lyrical book—proud and fierce on its own terms. Friedman’s prose is elegant and concise, yet it is studded with gems from the Talmud and Torah that only a writer deeply learned in the Jewish tradition could offer. His memoirs of his time in the mist and the mountains of Lebanon are full of haunting insights into what it means to be a soldier. It will be remembered as a classic.