January 08

What He Can’t Do Anymore

Ron Leshem

From Beaufort by Ron Leshem, translated by Evan Fallenberg, copyright © 2007 by Ron Leshem. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.

Israeli fiction has long depicted the experience of war. Short stories and novels by writers such as Yehoshua Kenaz, Benjamin Tammuz, and S. Yizhar feature soldiers heroic not only because of their bravery under fire, but also owing to their displays of conscience in the face of ethical dilemmas on the battlefield. The narrator of Ron Leshem’s Beaufort, Erez Liberti, undoubtedly displays courage while leading his soldiers during the tail-end of Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. But his monologues also reveal a gung-ho soldier with little time for moral introspection. Rather, Erez is mur’al—army slang for a soldier “poisoned” by the guts-and-glory image of the I.D.F. Leshem’s debut offers an antidote, perhaps, both to the romanticization of battle and to the “shoot-and-cry” syndrome that afflicts Israeli society. Certainly, Beaufort’s overwhelming critical and commercial success, which spawned an award-winning film and even inspired a hit song, indicate that Leshem’s novel has penetrated deep into Israel’s collective psyche.

- Adam Rovner, Translations Editor

Yonatan can’t see us growing ugly anymore. “We’ll never be as handsome as we are today,” he would always say, and I would ask if that was meant to make us feel better, because it didn’t.

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What? Are you totally out of it? How could you not know this game? No way you don’t know it. It’s called “What He Can’t Do Anymore,” and it’s what everyone plays when a friend is killed. You toss his name into the air and whoever’s there at the time has to say something about what he can’t do anymore. Sometimes it goes on for hours. Like on the soccer field, in the middle of a penalty kick. Late at night, too, for no good reason, you wake everyone up about half a minute after they’ve dropped off to sleep. Or when you’re at home, working on your girlfriend, not thinking about us at all, when the last thing in the world you want is to play the game, well, BAM! the phone rings and it’s us on the line. “Yonatan can’t . . .” we say, and you have to—everyone has to—reel off some association, that’s the rule, and you can’t repeat what’s already been said. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Yonatan can’t take his little brother to a movie anymore. Yonatan can’t watch Hapoel bring home the soccer trophy anymore. Yonatan can’t listen to the latest disc by Zion Golan anymore. He can’t see Tom with the ugliest slut in Nahariya anymore, and after he laughed at all of us, that little Mongoloid. He’ll never know how fucked up it is when you can’t get it up. He’ll never know how great it is when your mother’s proud of you for getting accepted to college. Even a community college. He won’t be at his grandfather’s funeral, he won’t know if his sister gets married, he won’t take a piss with us from the highest peak in South America, he won’t ski in Chacaltaya, he won’t screw the hottest Peruvian chick in Casa Fistuk.

Yonatan can’t know anymore the feeling of renting an apartment with his girlfriend. Yonatan can’t know anymore what it is to go with her to Castro clothes and come out with the new winter collection, or to Roladin Bakery in the middle of the night, when it’s raining, because all of a sudden she wants a doughnut, and anyway you’re a jerk, you never knew how to say no to her. And here I am thinking how lucky I am that I’ve already had the chance to run out for doughnuts in the rain.

He’ll never cheat on her. He’ll never know what it’s like to fuck the living daylights out of the sexiest babe in the country, some whore from Haifa who lures you into a one-night stand and then you understand, too late, that it wasn’t worth it, and the love of your life has left you. He’ll never know how much that hurts. And he’ll never know what it’s like to sit on the grass with a kid that’s his very own, telling him stories about how we were bigger than life in those ambushes in Lebanon, how we pulled off some magnificent stuff up there. There are lots of things Yonatan can’t do anymore.

Yonatan won’t know what song they played at his grave when he died: “Shir Hamaalot,” a psalm done Middle Eastern–style. It became his song. Everyone who was killed has a song that sticks with his friends from the time of the funeral. For months you listen and never get sick of it.

Yonatan will never know how River the medic cried over his body, how he wouldn’t calm down, how he fell apart, to pieces. Wailed like a baby. Yonatan’ll never know how Furman and I spent a whole day in the trenches and down the slopes looking for his missing head. When the missile hit the guard post his head blew off and rolled down to the Litani River. We didn’t want to believe it had rolled all the way down, to the river, but that’s exactly what happened, and in the end we gave up. Nothing we could do about it. I leaned over in that heavy smoke and grabbed his body with both hands, a body with no head. He’ll never know. And how the fire kept burning all around and we kept shooting and shooting and shooting in every possible direction, like that was supposed to make us feel better. And how everyone was shattered from it. The day before, we’d danced the waltz in our freezing dugout. We lit candles, we were happy. And then it ended. He’ll never ever know, there’s no chance of it.

Yonatan can’t sniff that sweet sweat mixed with the faint smell of shampoo during a long night of wild sex and cuddling, like the week we all had after we left Lebanon, when everything ended. Yonatan will never even know we left Lebanon.

Zeek's Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net

Images by Zachary Handler.


Ron Leshem’s Beaufort [Im Yesh Gan Eden. Zmora Bitan: 2005] won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize in 2006. Leshem was an editor and journalist for both Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, and currently serves as Deputy Director General and Director of Programming for Keshet Broadcasting, Israel. The film adaptation of Beaufort, with a screenplay co-authored by Leshem, won Joseph Cedar the best director award at the Berlin Film Festival 2007.

Evan Fallenberg is one of the leading translators of modern Hebrew literature, most recently of Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy. He has lived in Israel for more than twenty years, and has taught and lectured widely. Fallenberg’s debut novel, Light Fell, was excerpted in Zeek prior to its publication (Soho Press: 2008).

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