In a publishing era in which even good fiction can feel overstuffed or in need of sharper editing, Yishai Sarid’s lean but powerful novels place readers in the hands of a gifted writer who knows how to make every word count for maximum psychological impact and reading pleasure. In electrifying prose that captures the tensions and moral ambivalences of his society, Victorious proves an exceptionally worthy thematic successor of and companion to Sarid’s post-Holocaust novel, The Memory Monster—a disquieting work about the uses of Holocaust remembrance and pedagogy. Victorious is at once a haunting character study of a compromised woman whose healthy libido, black humor, and acerbic observations help her to cope (up to a point), and an unsparing portrait of Israel’s troubled soul.
Abigail is a military psychologist and lieutenant colonel who relishes her work training combat troops and ensuring that they are effective, unquestioning killers. She is a brilliant interpreter of the nightmarish dreams of soldiers and works to bolster their confidence and resilience before and after combat. When dealing with soldiers on the front lines, she is gifted at forcing open the repressions and silences that might haunt them later if left untreated. She sharply intuits “the traces of trauma between the lines.… The shadows of the people they’d killed were in the air, I could see them hovering over their shorn heads.” Elsewhere she presides over harsh interrogation- and captivity-training exercises that brutalize male as well as female pilots who might fall into enemy hands. While Abigail is not precisely an unreliable narrator, we’re sometimes given reason to doubt her motives and perhaps even sanity, especially when she repeatedly transgresses the therapeutic bond. The daughter of a famous psychoanalyst dying of cancer, Abigail is also a single mother, anxious about the fate of her young son (whose paternity becomes one of the more charged dimensions of the novel).
In a series of discomfiting episodes, we meet some of the narrator’s long-term patients who suffer various forms of PTSD. We’re often made to wonder about the psychic costs on the narrator, especially when Shauli, her sensitive, artistically inclined son, insists on serving in the paratroopers (under Israeli law, an only child is exempt from combat units). Besides its gripping scenes of military training and the aftermath of war, Victorious may linger in readers’ minds as a powerful drama about fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. And Abigail is surely the most compelling portrayal of an Israeli military mother since Ora in David Grossman’s To The End of the Land. Sarid’s complicated narrator timelessly captures the messy essence of Israel’s contradictions, as in this passage about the buildup to a massive military campaign in which the narrator has played an intrinsic role: “The radio reported that the war had begun, but the city was unimpressed. It was as if nobody’s children were serving in the military … The cafes were full of people, their mouths moving non-stop, eating and talking. They reminded me of rats, motivated only by food and sex.”
The proverbial chickens come home to roost in this novel, though not in a predictable way. Like Avner Mandelbaum, another spare stylist whose works explore the moral challenges of military service, Sarid’s bold examination of his society’s aggressive codes of conduct proves shattering in ways that produce more questions than answers. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears in the author’s nuanced and disturbing look at the toll of survival, militarism, and aggressive nationalism in the Jewish state. Translator Yardenne Greenspan brilliantly encapsulates all the immersive power and subtlety of Sarid’s blistering achievement.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.