Friday, 27 December 2013

The People of Forever are not Afraid

'The People of Forever are Not Afraid' by Shani Boianjiu was long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction this year (since renamed the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction) which is probably how I came across it. It is the story of Lea, Yael and Avishag, their childhood friendship and their baptism of fire into adulthood via their stint in the Israeli army. It is told pretty much stream-of-consciousness from each of their different perspectives. The whole book has a somewhat surreal quality to it, both in their childhood and their time in the army. They all live in this town that seems to exist solely for workers at a factory that makes parts for another factory that makes planes, and the whole of their teenage years are coloured by the anticipation of having to go into the army. And once they are in the army the overriding experience is one of utter tedium and meaninglessness. It's another of those stories that gives you an experience so alien that it is hard to take it in or make any sense of it. I let it wash over me and tried just to listen to the voices of the three girls. It is to a certain extent about how they try to cling on to some sense of themselves as human beings in an environment that is specifically designed to destroy their humanity. They come out the other end of the experience, but they are not the same. 

Here Lea, I think, is stationed at a checkpoint at a border with one of the occupied territories:

"I also had to make sure they weren't carrying weapons or about to explode their bodies. We were there to notice what the government wanted us to, dangers, but I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn't realise I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person." (p. 56)

I think it helped that I studied the Middle East as part of my degree so the historical background to the political situation was not totally unfamiliar; although it is obviously set quite recently there is no attempt to explain what is going on at any point, so some understanding of the history of the state of Israel might be a useful starting point if you want to make any sense of this tale. Certainly quite a challenging read and not for the faint hearted.

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