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"Exhilarating . . . How often can you say about a harrowing, unquiet book that it makes you wrestle with your soul?" ―Neel Mukherjee, The Times (London)
It's 1948 and the Arab villagers of Khirbet Khizeh are about to be violently expelled from their homes. A young Israeli soldier who is on duty that day finds himself battling on two fronts: with the villagers and, ultimately, with his own conscience.
Published just months after the founding of the state of Israel and the end of the 1948 war, the novella Khirbet Khizeh was an immediate sensation when it first appeared. Since then, the book has continued to challenge and disturb, even finding its way onto the school curriculum in Israel. The various debates it has prompted would themselves make Khirbet Khizeh worth reading, but the novella is much more than a vital historical document: it is also a great work of art. Yizhar's haunting, lyrical style and charged view of the landscape are in many ways as startling as his wrenchingly honest view of modern Israel's primal scene.
Considered a modern Hebrew masterpiece, Khirbet Khizeh is an extraordinary and heartbreaking book that is destined to be a classic of world literature.
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S. Yizhar was the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, born in Rehovot in 1916. A longtime member of the Knesset, he is most famous as the author of Khirbet Khizeh and the untranslated magnum opus Days of Ziklag. He died in 2006. Nicholas de Lange, a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University, has translated many Hebrew novels, including Preliminaries by S. Yizhar (2007). Yaacob Dweck translated Haim Sabato's The Dawning of the Day (2006). He is an assistant professor of history and Judaic studies at Princeton University. David Shulman teaches Sanskrit and other Indian languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has published numerous books and is the author of Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine (2007). Shulman was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1987.
TRUE, IT ALL HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO, but it has haunted me ever since. I sought to drown it out with the din of passing time, to diminish its value, to blunt its edge with the rush of daily life, and I even, occasionally, managed a sober shrug, managed to see that the whole thing had not been so bad after all, congratulating myself on my patience, which is, of course, the brother of true wisdom. But sometimes I would shake myself again, astonished at how easy it had been to be seduced, to be knowingly led astray and join the great general mass of liars—that mass compounded of crass ignorance, utilitarian indifference, and shameless self-interest—and exchange a single great truth for the cynical shrug of a hardened sinner. I saw that I could no longer hold back, and although I hadn’t even made up my mind where it would end, it seemed to me that, in any case, instead of staying silent, I should, rather, start telling the story.
One option is to tell the story in order, beginning with one clear day, one clear winter’s day, and describing in detail the departure and the journey, when the dirt paths were moistened by the earlier rain, and the cactus hedges surrounding the citrus groves were burned by the sun and moist, their feet, as of old, licked by flocks of dense damp dark-green nettles, as the noonday gradually advanced, a pleasant unhurried noonday, which moved on as usual and turned into a darkening twilight chill, when it was all over, finished, done.
Another and possibly better option, however, would be to begin differently, and to mention straightaway what had been the purpose of that entire day from the start, “operational order” number such and such, on such and such day of the month, in the margin of which, in the final section that was simply entitled “miscellaneous,” it said, in a short line and a half, that although the mission must be executed decisively and precisely, whatever happened, “no violent outbursts or disorderly conduct”—it said—“would be permitted,” which only indicated straightaway that there was something amiss, that anything was possible (and even planned and foreseen), and that one couldn’t evaluate this straightforward final clause before returning to the opening and also scanning the noteworthy clause entitled “information,” which immediately warned of the mounting danger of “infiltrators,” “terrorist cells,” and (in a wonderful turn of phrase) “operatives dispatched on hostile missions,” but also the subsequent and even more noteworthy clause, which explicitly stated, “assemble the inhabitants of the area extending from point X (see attached map) to point Y (see same map)—load them onto transports, and convey them across our lines; blow up the stone houses, and burn the huts; detain the youths and the suspects, and clear the area of ‘hostile forces,’” and so on and so forth—so that it was now obvious how many good and honest hopes were being invested in those who were being sent out to implement all this “burn-blow-up-imprison-load-convey,” who would burn blow up imprison load and convey with such courtesy and with a restraint born of true culture, and this would be a sign of a wind of change, of decent upbringing, and, perhaps, even of the Jewish soul, the great Jewish soul.
And so it happened as we set out that clear splendid winter morning, cheerfully making our way, showered, well fed, and smartly turned out; and so, in the light breeze, we got out at a certain point close to a village that wasn’t yet visible, and our company was dispatched to the flank, while some of the others were to cover the rear and the rest were to enter the village. And as usual there was nothing better than being in the flanking company. Which was moving off through unknown territory, setting out into the washed, cleansed existence of the fields, the pure pellucid air, among plantations partly plowed (from before the rage), and partly covered with weeds and grass (from the days of rage)—and it was so pleasant to slosh around on the muddy paths slippery with puddles and fresh mire, until your youth, albeit no longer so very youthful, burst forth with renewed vigor. Even carrying the “mission-case,” which cut into your hand, might be transformed now and resemble nothing more than something or other that belonged to a group of people walking, let’s say, to work or even, for example, a flock of chirping sparrowlike urchins. There we were sloshing, talking and chattering, joking and singing, not noisily, but cheerfully, and it was clear: there was to be no battle for us today, and if anyone happened to feel apprehensive—this had nothing to do with us, God help him, today we were going on an outing.
We reached a hill, where we crouched under a cactus hedge, and we were ready to eat something, when the man, one Moishe, the company commander, gathered us together, and briefed us about the situation, the lay of the land, and the objective. From which it transpired that the few houses on the lower slope of another hill were some Khirbet Khizeh or other, and all the surrounding crops and fields belonged to that village, whose abundant water, good soil, and celebrated husbandry had gained a reputation almost equal to that of its inhabitants, who were, they said, a band of ruffians, who gave succor to the enemy, and were ready for any mischief should the opportunity only arise; or, for example, should they happen to encounter any Jews you could be sure they would wipe them out, at once—such was their nature, and such were their ways. And when we fixed our sights upon those few houses on the flanks of that unobtrusive hill, from which we were separated by the plantations, the well-tended gardens, and a scattering of wells, we saw that this whole Khirbet Khizeh presented no problem, truly did not justify any further explanation. On the other hand, there were some trees, sycamores apparently, here and there, so venerable and tranquil that they seemed to be no longer part of the vegetation but of the inanimate realm. And then someone came back with some oranges, and we ate oranges.
Then we set off down the slimy gray furrows, which they hadn’t had time to sow; we pushed open a big wooden gate set in a mud wall, and walked up a narrow path, between hedges of prickly pears spread with dung and chilly dampness, where deadnettles, fumarias, and flowerless fleshy plants twined in profusion and sprawled under their own damp drab weight, or hid coyly in the recesses of the cactus hedge, and we climbed up the next hill. From here the village lay spread out before us. We took our positions, set up the machine gun, and were ready to start. And when the one who was bent over his equipment listening and speaking into the wireless receiver in a ceremonial singsong informed us that there was still a wait until zero hour, we each sought and found a dry place to sit or stretch out and wait quietly for things to begin.
No one knows how to wait like soldiers. There is no time or place that soldiers are not waiting and waiting. Waiting in dug-in positions on the high ground, waiting for an attack, waiting to move on, waiting in a cease-fire; there is the ruthlessly long waiting, the nervous anxious waiting, and there is also the tedious waiting, that consumes and burns everything, without fire or smoke or purpose or anything. You find yourself a place, you lie down in it, and you wait. Where have we not lain down?
There was a time when we had just begun to go into the villages that had been conquered, when there was still something fastidious in us, so that we would rather stand or walk the entire day, anything rather than sit on that earth, which wasn’t the soil of fields but a putrid patch of disgusting dirt, spat upon by generations that had cast their water and excrement and the dung of their cattle and camels upon it, those dirt plots around their hovels, touched by the stench of the refuse of wretched cramped human habitation. Everything was filthy, it was disgusting to pick anything up, and already in the afternoon of the same day we were all sprawled full length upon that very sickly loathsome pissed-upon ground, lying comfortably, in a hardened mood, bursting out every now and then into eye-dimming laughter.
Oh, those days in the dug-in positions. There was once this stocky guy, with a swarthy pockmarked face and a mop of woolly hair, who tried to amuse others by making faces, while performing appropriate contortions, dressed in a filthy undershirt, and for the thousandth time he pretended to be speaking into the wireless, transmitting repeatedly in a hoarse voice: “Hey babe, can you hear me, can you hear me? I’m on the hill, I’m on the hill, at the ruins, at the ruins, I need you, I’m waiting for you, babe, you hear me, over!” And everyone easily took the hint and responded with an uproarious outburst that, for fear of stopping, continued longer than it should have.
Carcasses of dogs stank and no one cared. Whole days in the desolate dust, in fetid boredom, in demoralizing danger, and in filth from which there was no escape. Lying and waiting for what would happen. Or for anything. No one was virtuous enough now to powder himself against fleas. One knelt in a shaded hollow and lay down. And as the sun revolved, you cast a reproachful eye upon it and didn’t move a limb—the sun could explode for all you cared and you wouldn’t move. And when, finally, a pleasant sea breeze blew and slightly ruffled and stirred the screens of dusty filth that hung scorching and angry, a pleasant expectancy also flared up inside you, as though despite everything. Immediately the sorrowful wail dissolved within you and everyone started thinking about girls. Something about them all as they were, and something about one in particular, except that even before the wind had folded its wings, turbid powerfully rushing streams had confounded this small pleasure, until finally there was nothing left of it but a kind of foul miasma. Immediately there was a need for vengeance, breaking and smashing, at the very least trampling. They would beat the camel that was turning the creaking dripping waterwheel until their hands were raw, and kick the old Arab who had stayed behind to make sure the water was drawn, and who, out of eagerness to help and so as not to be useless, held the camel’s halter and walked around with it, round and round for long hours, he and the camel together; they would shoot dozens of bullets at a terrified dog until it fell, and they’d get into a murderous argument with someone, and then slip back into boredom and idleness, and vile monotonous meals, biting, chewing, hurling the tin away, kicking it to hell, and adding similar outrages, and waiting for the thing to happen, to take place at once, for something or other to happen, and damn it!
When it was afternoon, which here was dusty, shimmering with glassy heat-haze in the distance, hinting at outlines of things that, apparently, were not from these parts, and would not reach you, boiling away with the thrill of a July day upon the spacious expanse of yellow-gray land, without a strip of shade, without any refuge, the diametrical opposite of dampness, when the dusty afternoon had boiled away in utter freedom, the hours grew longer and longer, desiccating, ending with great sadness, with a sort of nothingness that seethed up heavy and slippery, leveling everything, until everything was exactly the same, flattened and unimportant, and someone would not be able stop himself any longer and would leap up and with a shout rush down from the hill and attack someone standing by the well—from which the creaking wheel wrung intermittent spurts, while vicious hornets pounced eagerly upon every fallen drop—and scream repeatedly with uncontrollable fury:
“Jab the fucker in the backside! Get it moving! Get the bastard moving!”
That was what waiting had been like. But on this glorious winter morning, upon this luxuriant hill, when everything around was green and watered, it was nothing more than a picnic on a school outing, when all you had to do was be happy and celebrate the pleasant hours and then go home to your mom. We lay on our backs or on our bellies or on our sides, our legs spread out in every direction, our tongues wagging easily, chatting and chewing, everything that we had been ordered to do on this mission wasn’t worth a thought, that village over there, the infiltrators within it, and whatever else the devil might put together here. We didn’t owe anyone a thing, we didn’t have to worry about a thing, and we didn’t care about a thing.
Apart from all sorts of other things, all this might only be one further piece of evidence that this war had gone on long enough, as was commonly agreed, in fact too long, and the time had come, perhaps, for other children to come and continue the game, if it was impossible to do without it.
With the same ease and facility with which the prattle had sprung up previously out of the pleasantness of lying around and doing nothing it now died down quickly and stopped of its own accord—from what we might call, for short, aridity of the heart. We sprawled in silence. We knew so well who would say what, and what would be said by whom, and also how he would twist his lips when he said what he said, and even his manner of being silent, so that you’d rouse yourself and hurry to revive the chatter so as not to leave a silence, were it not for the laziness. Maybe that wasn’t it, but as one lay idly about, thoughts would stealthily creep in, and we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking. By the way, two or three of us had already, it turned out, really begun to nod off. Including one kid who had started singing a snatch of a tune under his breath for the third or fourth time, and had stopped because he didn’t know any more or because that was all he wanted to say. Even the one who was amusing himself throwing small stones a short distance, and a moment before had begun to play the well-known game of throwing stones at his friends and feigning innocence, got bored with it, folded his hands under his head, sank back, and his gaze wandered up into the branches of the ancient jujube tree and the vast sky that swirled up directly from the summit of the green canopy and rose with a mighty rush to unfathomable heights (which he cared nothing about and paid no attention to), so much so that suddenly it was understood that it was all up with us. We would never succeed the way we once had. Once, not long ago. And something fundamentally different, and gloomy, had already been sown in our innermost being, and there was nothing to be done about it.
If this lying around continued, I feared that we would start to quarrel.
Hebrew copyright © 1949 by Noemi Smilansky and Zmora Bitan Publishers
English translation copyright © 2008 by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck
Afterword copyright © 2008 by David Shulman and Ibis Editions
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