Part 04, Chapters 61-70
Part 4, Chapter 61
“Everything is different from today.”
–Franz Josef Haydn
Quoted in “Beethoven,” BBC Opus Arte
David left the mercenaries’ office and walked through the grim streets back to his hotel. He was depressed and full of anxiety, but he spent the next four days doing what the man had asked him to do. And all the time, the sense of deep, persistent dread, depression, and anxiety seemed to be suffocating him. He dealt with all that, though, by thinking that it simply didn’t matter, because he would soon be dead. He would join the mercenaries, and he would die in Central Africa. And then all of the seemingly endless, meaningless misery would finally be over.
He certainly was wallowing in despair and self-pity. That much is clear. He was also so innocent — and possibly just stupid — that he really didn’t realize what in the world he was really getting into. When he went to the doctor for the physical exam that he was supposed to have, he was treated as if he were someone that the doctor felt slightly ashamed to have on the premises. The physician came out of his office into the crowded waiting room, looked at David and another man and said simply, “Are you the ones?”
David guessed that they were, so he followed the other man into the doctor’s examining room. When the other man — older, tougher, harder than David ever wanted to be — took off his jacket, David saw a gun in a holster strapped over his shoulder. He’d never seen anything like that before, but the doctor didn’t seem particularly surprised. In fact, he didn’t seem to notice the weapon at all. David thought to himself that maybe a lot of white men went around carrying concealed weapons in South Africa. Regardless of how much he might try to ignore it, though, with part of his mind he wondered whether or not he wasn’t entering a world that was darker and more evil than anything he’d ever known before.
He spent much of the next few days at his seedy hotel. It was July, a cold, cloudy South African winter day in July, and the weather made him withdraw into himself more than ever. The sense of dread and depression seemed to deepen into a feeling verging on real despair. But, as has always happened at such moments in my life, he met someone who revived his desire to live, at least long enough to make a difference.
Since temporary things often have a way of becoming permanent, the revived impulse to live eventually became the familiar habit of living.
David met a young Rhodesian named Bret. Paradoxically, although Bret encouraged him, without realizing it, to go on living, Bret himself was one of those young men who are so bright, so intelligent, and so handsome in every way that you at once fear they must ultimately be doomed. They have too much life, too much energy, too much intelligence to be able to survive in the sort of narrow, limited world most people appear to inhabit. Hardly any such young men are ever lucky enough to be able to give full expression to their abilities and talents. In their unhappiness and with their sense of being thwarted, they often destroy themselves in the end, one way or another — through drugs or alcohol or by doing something equally self-destructive.
Of course, David himself, in a way, fit that description, although he probably didn’t have very many really impressive qualities. Nevertheless, he and Bret were in many respects similar, and it may have been for that reason that he and David became friends in that instantaneous, adolescent way that seems at the time to be something so extraordinary. And perhaps it is. But if so, it’s extraordinary in the way that everything in this world that is full of splendor and color and life is extraordinary, but evanescent as well.
Only one thing — one being — lasts. But people rarely remember that.
Bret and David spent hours talking — although it might be truer to say that Bret — with his energy, his intelligence, and his lively, ready smile — was the one who really did most of the talking. David, in his usual way, nearly overwhelmed with depression and feeling that almost anything he said about himself would be incomprehensible, did little more than just listen to Bret’s stories about life in Rhodesia — Zimbabwe — in those years before the end of colonial rule, when Bret and his brother lived and worked in the bush, and traveled all over eastern and southern Africa.
It was never very clear to David what they did exactly, but Bret’s bright, laughing eyes made that seem somehow irrelevant. The point of the stories was not what they did; the point was that they allowed Bret to relive the sense of adventure and freedom and independence his life held then.
And those things seemed even more splendid to Bret — and to David as well — because both of them knew without saying it that the world Bret and his brother — and David too — had lived in in Africa was even then starting to disappear forever.
Part 4, Chapter 62
“This is music for a later age.”
–Ludwig von Beethoven
“Great Composers: Beethoven,” BBC4 Broadcast
Brett asked David what he was planning to do, and David told him he didn’t know. And in a way that was true, because the idea of joining the mercenaries was starting to seem so absurd — even to David — that he didn’t want to tell Bret anything about it.
Bret said he was planning to go to Europe in a month or so, or whenever his application for a South African passport was approved. He wanted to know if David wanted to go with him, and David said he would think about it.
In the meantime, after David had done everything he’d been told to do for his application to join the mercenaries, he went back to their office with the forms he’d had to fill out. This time, though, the situation had changed. There was no one in the outer room, and the room with the flag was filled with a strange collection of men of almost every age, size, and physical type. They were standing around in small groups, talking and muttering to each other in English, French, Afrikaans, and in languages he didn’t recognize. At the desk this time there was a tough, burly man who gave the impression of being very much in command of everything. He looked at David appraisingly after he made his way through the crowd and came up to the desk. The man glanced at the papers David gave him. “We can’t take you,” he said. He handed the papers back to David.
“Why not?” asked David, sheepishly. Despite the doubts he’d had, having the mercenary possibility suddenly withdrawn gave him the familiar sensation of having the ground just disappear under his feet. What would he do now?
“Because you’re an American, and you’ll lose your citizenship if we take you.”
David wanted to say that the last thing he cared about at that point was his citizenship, but he was afraid that might sound too self-destructive, as if he didn’t care what happened to him. Of course he really didn’t care, or at least he believed he didn’t, but he thought that if they knew that, they’d never take him. All he said was, “But how will the Americans know?”
The man took out a cigar and lit it with his thick, powerful hands. “How will they know?” he asked through small clouds of smoke. “They’ll know because they fly us up there.”
David didn’t ask him what he meant by that. He just assumed the man was talking about the CIA or something. Anyway, whoever those “Americans” might be didn’t really interest him very much.
“They’ll just take you off the plane,” he went on, “and ship you back to the States — before they take away your citizenship.”
Along time later, seen in the context of his whole life, that conversation would seem so weird to him that he’d wonder how in the world he’d had the presence of mind to continue it. But continue it he did, because he had to push himself along that course as far as I could. He had to push himself along any course, once he’d started on it. In this case, that meant finding out if there was any chance at all he could join the strange group of characters and deadbeats standing around him. He wanted to join something.
He held on to the papers the man had given him, and he said, “But couldn’t I get some kind of travel document from the South African government?”
The man looked at him for a moment. “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the immigration authorities.”
Now it was David’s turn to look at him. “Okay, do you know anyone I could contact there who might be able to deal with this sort of thing?” He was so tense and anxious that he seemed almost to have lost the capacity to feel anything at all. He spoke in a kind of monotone, mechanically, as if some part of had already been killed.
The man wrote a name and address on a piece of paper. “This guy may be able to help you. He’s an immigration officer,” he said as he turned away.
Part 4, Chapter 63
“We have to be careful about the games we play, because if we play them long enough, all games become real.”
–Jorge Luis Borges
In conversation, Harvard, 1968
As David left the mercenaries’ office, all the feelings he’d been blocking for days came rushing back. He felt dread and apprehension washing over him.
And what exactly was it that he was afraid of? Was it the future — whatever the future might be? Or was the whole mercenary idea frightening him now, because it was becoming just a little too real, because it was becoming more than one of the little dramas he seemed always to be playing for an audience of one — himself? Later in life he would suppose that this probably had been the reason: the “mercenary idea” had been nothing more than his own little personal drama, one of so many – and now it threatened to become real.
He was, in other words, probably afraid that if he really did pursue the idea far enough, he might in the end finally be able to join the mercenaries and reach the goal he’d set deep down, his little goal of self-destruction.
Perhaps his fear meant that he still had sense enough not to really want that.
He didn’t yet know what else he could do, though. Every other course of action he could think of following also seemed to end in self-destruction. The only difference was that these other courses would have probably taken a little longer. The whole world, all of life itself, appeared to him to be full of a horrifying uncertainty, and everywhere he turned, everywhere he looked or could think of looking, the only thing he saw lying beyond that uncertainty was destruction and death.
David understood – somewhat surprisingly, given the circumstances – that he’d brought everything on himself. He certainly couldn’t blame anyone else for what had happened to him. This was just the way the world was, he thought. He also told himself he wouldn’t feel any self pity — or at least he would try not to. Even many years afterward, if he was tempted at times to feel sorry for the simple-minded boy he was then, so hopeless and so lost, if he was tempted to wonder why in God’s name someone didn’t help him – his parents, some friend or other, even someone from Harvard – he would remind himself that such an idea too was only a form of self-pity. There was — and is — no human being in all the world that he could really rely on. Perhaps, he would sometimes think later, even he might be able to rely on God, but certainly not on any other person.
So he left the mercenaries’ office with that one small part of him still intact, that small part of him that was determined to go on as long as possible — to go on living, to go on surviving, in spite of everything, despite his apparent desire to die, despite all the indirect attempts to bring about the death.
That same afternoon he went to the immigration office in Johannesburg and asked to see the man whose name the mercenaries had given him. He was told the man wouldn’t be in the office until the following week, so David asked if there was anyone else he could talk to. He was shown into another office where a kind-looking, middle-aged man was writing at a desk.
The man began the conversation with David by explaining to him the need for elementary school teachers in South Africa. He told him he could even offer him a position as a teacher if he wanted to accept it. As soon as David heard those words, he understood with a sort of blinding clarity that the whole situation he’d placed himself in was preposterous. He asked himself what in the world he was doing, what he wanted to do.
How in the world, though, he wondered, could he teach South African children? How could he teach any children anything? How could he teach anybody anything?
David thanked the man and left.
He was sure that if he’d really tried, he could have joined the mercenaries. Again, perhaps the reason he didn’t was because some part of him really did understand what a stupid idea it really was. If he’d really wanted to destroy himself that way, he could have gone to France and joined the Foreign Legion. It would have been much easier to do that, and the fact that this never occurred to proves — almost certainly — that he was never really very serious about destroying himself. It was, almost without a doubt, one more little drama he chose to act in.
So, with the suddenness that was a part of most of the things he was now deciding to do in life, he made the decision to get out of Johannesburg. It had seemed a cold and impersonal city from the beginning. Now it seemed colder and more impersonal than ever.
For the first time, now that his latest drama had drawn to a close, he told himself that perhaps there was no reason to join the mercenaries, after all. Perhaps he might be able to tolerate a little more of life. Again and again he thought to himself how little point there was now in trying to find out whether or not the mercenaries would ever accept him, he continued to try to join.
He went back to his room and slept for a while. Sleep was always a convenient escape for him.
A knock on the door woke him up. It was Bret, who came in and sat in a chair near the bed. He asked David if he knew yet what he was going to do, and all at once David heard himself telling Bret that if he was planning to go to Europe after he got his passport, they might as well go there together. David asked himself what difference it could really make. He’d begun to think that if life had to end in oblivion, ultimately, he might as well make it pleasant.
So much for all his grand ideals. Going to Europe with Bret would lead to nothing, he told himself, since all of life was essentially pointless and absurd and led to nothing in the end, but at least this nothing might be enjoyable.
David told Bret that staying in South Africa until Bret got a passport meant finding something to do, some kind of work, because under those circumstances David couldn’t know how long he would have to be in the country, and he didn’t want to run out of money. Bret thought for a moment and then told him it might be a good idea to visit some of Bret’s relatives in Durban. They might be able to help him find a job and a place to live.
Part 4, Chapter 64
“Si oblitus fuero tui….”
–Psalmus 136 (137)
“If I forget thee…. ”
–Psalm 136 (137)
The next day David hitch-hiked to Durban. As he rode along in different cars, hardly ever speaking to the drivers, certainly no longer with any childish desire to immortalize any of them in his writing, really with no desire to do anything at all, he looked out over the low hills and the gentle landscape that stretches between Johannesburg and South Africa’s east coast, and in spite of his nearly overwhelming sadness, he was drawn to and held briefly by something in all that bright simplicity of nature that was impossible for him to grasp completely.
When he arrived in Durban, though, it didn’t take long for his anxiety and depression to return. He visited Bret’s relatives, and they turned out to be a friendly middle-aged couple. They couldn’t quite understand what he was doing there, but since he was a friend of Bret’s, they thought he must be all right. He didn’t stay with them, though; he took a room in a hotel instead.
He spent most of his time in Durban just walking around the city, not looking for a job, not looking for anything in particular, he thought. As time passed, Durban too began to seem cold, lonely, and wintry. There, at the ocean, at the southern end of the African continent, he felt he’d reached the end of the world, the end of everything.
The future looked so blank and hopeless that again and again he simply thought about the fact that he had nowhere to go, about the fact that there were no more bright dreams, the way there’d been at Harvard. Or at least the way there’d been bright dreams at Harvard until Harvard became a nightmare for him. He had no way of knowing that he was only experiencing what most people experience at some point in their lives.
So now everything was a nightmare for him. He kept trying to figure out how his life had turned into such a disaster, and how he could escape it. He could think of nothing.
He just walked on and on, without a future, without hope, and with no one in the world he could turn to for help.
Anyone tempted to feel sorry for that unhappy young man, or to feel sad at the waste of so much energy and intelligence, should be reminded that he had only himself to blame for his situation. It was not his mother’s fault or his stepfather’s fault or Harvard’s fault. It was his own fault. He had simply wasted too much time before finally discovering that the world was almost entirely hard and cold and cruel – like his mother and stepfather. He should have listened to them when they’d told him, in a thousand different ways, that this was the way the world was. He’d been unable to abandon his illusions, though, or ground his life and thinking in beliefs that he could feel were not illusions.
It did not take more than two days in Durban to make David decide to leave South Africa. He was tired of living in a country that was as cold and lonely as South Africa seemed to him; he had to go somewhere warm. He would go to Israel. He could not wait in South Africa for a month, waiting until Bret got his passport.
He took a plane back to Johannesburg, sent Bret a card, went to the El Al office, and asked about flights to Tel Aviv. There was a flight the next day, by way of Nairobi, and he was on it.
He stayed overnight in Nairobi, wondering if he would ever return there and knowing he never would, at least in a way. He was able to understand the simple truth that whatever else might happen in his life, he would never again be the person he was at that moment, and certainly not the one he’d been in the past. He understood — or half understood, anyway — that he was not only leaving East Africa forever, he was also leaving childhood and youth behind, finally, even though in some ways he would remain rather childish for a very long time.
He felt he was ridding himself of all the dreams and illusions he used to have. However, whether he would replace those dreams and illusions with a sense of reality or simply with other, different dreams and illusions, was something he didn’t consider.
He was, finally, convinced that there was nothing for him in Africa anymore.
So, the next day, depressed and with a raging headache, he took off for Tel Aviv on an El Al flight. The plane headed north for a time and then turned east over the horn of Africa. Since no Israeli aircraft of any kind was allowed to fly over an Arab country, they made a long, time-consuming detour, avoiding Sudan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and headed north toward Iran, which at that time maintained relations with Israel. They landed briefly at Tehran, and then continued west over Turkey, finally turning south toward the sea. When they were safely out over the Mediterranean, the pilot turned the plane east again for the descent to Tel Aviv. As they touched the ground in Israel, most of the passengers began cheering.
For some reason, he would always remember that and often think of it in later life.
He’d managed to sleep during most of the trip, and when he woke up and looked out at the warm sunshine, he could have almost imagined the land was welcoming him. He began to feel some sense of hope again.
Part 4, Chapter 65
“Simi yadei ba yadai,
Ani shelcha v at sheni.
He, he, Gliliya,
Bat horei yafeifiya.”
“Put your hand in my hand,
I am yours and you are mine,
lovely daughter of the mountains.”
–Israeli Folk Song
On the bus from the airport into Tel Aviv, the feeling began growing stronger in me that some new possibilities might lie ahead. It was almost as if the old illusions were reawakening. I knew there would be problems and difficulties, but for a time, perhaps there might also be a kind of peace.
On the bus he met a young Israeli named Jacob. When David told him he was planning to stay in Israel for a while and work on a kibbutz, Jacob offered to try to guide him through the government offices he would have to visit. For David, it would have been difficult enough to deal with something like that in the United States, but if Jacob hadn’t helped him, it would have been impossible in Israel, because David knew no Hebrew.
The day after David arrived in Tel Aviv, Jacob took him to a government department that assigned volunteers to various kibbutzim around the country. He told the woman who interviewed him – a woman who didn’t exactly seem friendly or loveable – that he wanted to be sent to a kibbutz near the border, a new kibbutz in the early stages of development. What he had in mind was joining a group of young Israelis — something like the pioneers — somewhere in the Negev. As usual, he had impossible, romantic visions, ones that he’d probably acquired from books or films like “Exodus”: everyone living in tents or makeshift houses and working at some laborious irrigation project all day long. In the evening they’d spend their time talking, singing, and dancing around a campfire under a desert night sky glowing with stars. It never occurred to him that this might be just a little difficult, if for no other reason than the fact that he knew no Hebrew and couldn’t dance. As always, David didn’t let anything as crude as reality interfere with his daydreams.
He thought the only kind of “new border kibbutz” that could possibly exist in Israel was the one he was imagining. He didn’t count on the possibility there might be some other kind elsewhere in the country, or that the word “new” might include kibbutzim that had been built twenty or thirty years earlier.
The woman in the government office spoke no English and Jacob translated the remarks she gruffly directed at David. She was a stocky, grim-faced, middle-aged female bureaucrat, and probably some weird form of culture shock caused the bizarre idea to flash across David’s mind that if the Jews had had concentration camps for the Nazis, instead of the other way around, this woman looked exactly like what a guard in such a place might have been. She seemed to become increasingly unsympathetic as the minutes in her office went by. Finally, she consulted a schedule and made a few telephone calls in Hebrew, which Jacob didn’t explain.
When she’d satisfied herself that everything was in order, she wrote down the address of a kibbutz that was located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. The location wasn’t exactly the Negev, but it occurred to David that perhaps people might still be living in tents and dancing around a campfire at night even in Upper Galilee. And besides, he was pretty sure that he didn’t really have any choice, that it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and that it was this particular kibbutz or no kibbutz at all. The woman had apparently gone through a great deal of trouble just to make these arrangements, so what would she do if David refused them? He was still naive perhaps, but he’d learned enough about life not to argue with a bureaucrat, especially one who looked as tough as this one did.
Early the next day, Jacob showed him where the bus station was, and he set off for Kibbutz Parod. The bus headed out of Tel Aviv on a morning so bright and fresh it might have been the first morning ever. As they climbed northward up into Galilee, the air became cooler and the rocky hillsides were covered with trees. The land was radiant and austere, and the words of some half-forgotten poem he had once read in some language or other came again into his mind: “gleaming earth and splendor in the heavens arching overhead.”
Part 4, Chapter 66
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine….”
–The Balfour Declaration
British Foreign Office, 2 November 1917
When David arrived at the kibbutz, Alti, the man responsible for an intensive Hebrew course for tourists and immigrants, was there to meet him.
Alti’s languages were Hungarian, German, and Hebrew, and David’s at that time were English, Swahili, and French, so about the only thing that Alti could tell David was that the course was supposed to begin the following week. What David could perceive of the man, though, he liked. Alti was a short, intense Israeli in his middle-forties, with a lively, nervous manner and bright intelligent eyes.
He took David to a collection of small, one-room structures of unpainted wood that had long ago bleached to a light gray in the relentless sun of many hot, Israeli summers. Alti explained that these had been the first buildings on the kibbutz and had served as the Spartan quarters of the first settlers shortly after independence in 1948. They were now used as living quarters for visitors, guest workers, and students. David had a roommate, a young Frenchman who’d been raised in Algeria and had now, at his parents’ urging, emigrated to Israel. He was at the kibbutz so that he could learn some Hebrew and then start his service in the Israeli army.
Alti also introduced him to Ilana, a young woman from Argentina, married to an Israeli, and one of the four people on the kibbutz who spoke English. As David talked to her and observed some of the other people, and saw more of life on the kibbutz, he understood better than ever how different this kibbutz was from what he’d been expecting. All of these people were leading quite ordinary, quiet, middle-class lives. In some ways they were perhaps not very different from people he might have met in a small farming community in an American state like Iowa.
It was a young, undeveloped kibbutz all right, and it was near the border, but it was not quite what he’d had in mind. The tents or shacks he’d imagined were not there, nor the vast open fields where the desert had been made to bloom and abundant crops were growing. At night there would be no gathering around camp fires or patrolling and standing guard against possible terrorist attacks. David would definitely not be playing the Paul Newman role in the version of “Exodus” unreeling in his imagination.
The more David looked around, the more striking were the differences between what he’d been hoping for and the reality he saw. Kibbutz Parod was on the border, it was true, but the border was the Sea of Galilee and the hills of Syria were far away, visible only across the water. It was true that by Israeli standards Parod was a young kibbutz, but David had been thinking more in terms of months, not a couple of decades. It was also true that Parod was in a way undeveloped, but only in the sense that it had so far become no more than moderately prosperous, not in the sense that its land had recently been wrested from the desert and made to flourish. There was, in fact, no desert at all anywhere in the vicinity.
The kibbutz was not a large settlement, though, and that, at least, was what David had wanted. There were only about two hundred inhabitants. Still, David had actually been thinking in terms of twenty or thirty inhabitants. At Kibbutz Parod the ulpan alone — the group of tourists and immigrants he was part of — consisted of around thirty people.
At first, since he knew no Hebrew, it was impossible for him to talk to more than a very few people on the kibbutz. Nearly everyone was either a sabra, in which case few of them spoke anything other than Hebrew, or they were Hungarian, Czech, or Rumanian and spoke some central or eastern European language that David found impenetrable. He was able to see that as an advantage, though, at least in a way: it would mean he’d be forced to speak Hebrew. If he ever did want to – or have to – speak English, he could speak with Ilana. She was a kind and intelligent woman, but because he found her a little domineering as well, it was difficult for him to speak with her as openly as he might have wanted. Her husband was quite the opposite — a big, quiet man, a sabra, without Ilana’s education or energy, but with at least as much intelligence, though David had to learn some Hebrew before he understood that.
So in this strange place where he at first felt more like a foreigner than he’d ever felt anywhere before — because he’d never lived anyplace where he was not with at least a few people who were either of his own nationality or with whom he shared a common native language, or both — in this at first strange place, he was in a sense trying to start his life over one more time. Here, in the almost overpowering heat of August, he was trying to start his life right this time, as he’d tried in every other place he’d ever been before. Perhaps, he thought, at last, in this place there would be a new beginning; there would be an ordinary life, without the ghosts and patterns of the past.
He didn’t understand what should have been obvious — he could never start an “ordinary” life in a place that was so unlike anything that all the “ordinary” people he’d known had ever lived in.
Rather stupidly, he also didn’t understand that it was far too late for him to start an “ordinary” life anywhere at all.
Part 4, Chapter 67
“(C)e serait faire oeuvre de justice et de réparation que d’aider à la renaissance, par la protection des Puissances alliées, de la nationalité juive, sur cette terre d’où le peuple d’Israël a été chassé il y a tant de siècles. “
–Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Cabinet du Ministre
République Française, Paris, le 4 juin 1917
“(I)t would be an act of justice and reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.”
–Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of the Minister
French Republic, Paris, 4 June 1917
David at least tried to be like other people. He tried to hide from everything in his past life that he thought tended to make him different.
The long hours of summer, working in the orchards, the long hours of picking apples, when the dappled light fell on the ground and the faces of the other workers glittered with sweat — this too was where he tried to hide the fact that he was different.
The hours they spent every day in class wrestling with Hebrew grammar and conversation — this too was a hiding place for him, but a comfortable one, for he loved to study, and he especially loved studying a foreign language.
He’d always been curious about Hebrew — those letters that seemed somehow warm and familiar — and they had a fine teacher. Alti had a knowledge and love of the language that nearly equaled – in David’s mind anyway – the kind of passionate regard that some Harvard professors had for their field. He regarded it not only as a means of communicating with the present, but also — and this seemed sometimes to be even more important for him — it was a means of communication with the past, a past so distant it could hardly be imagined.
Perhaps because of this approach to Hebrew, David managed, finally, to lose himself — at least at times — in lovely, endless complexity, the endless complexity of a language that was both ancient and new.
But he could do that only at times. Grief and anger often broke through into his mind, along with his usual feelings of self-pity. He couldn’t understand why he seemed unable to have the kind of orderly, successful life other people appeared to have.
What was wrong with him, he wondered.
Sometimes, in his blackest moments, he thought he must have been somehow cursed. When he first entered university those long years before, all he’d really wanted to do was work hard and lead a good life, and then perhaps become a teacher. But his life had become this dark, incomprehensible thing, filled with other things inside and outside himself that he did not know how to deal with.
It would certainly be tempting to ridicule that kind of thinking in a young man like David, and certainly he does deserve ridicule, but at the same time, it should perhaps be borne in mind that the pain he felt was real, at least to himself.
Whatever else he might conceal about himself, the incomprehensibility of his life was something he couldn’t seem to hide. That was something he couldn’t hide when he was talking to Ilana or to any of the other people on the kibbutz or in the ulpan. He couldn’t hide it when he talked with the Polish-born woman doctor from England, who seemed to him compassionate and wise with that compassion and wisdom he’d always associated with older Jewish women.
One day she said to him with her richly Slavic accent, “You can’t run away from your nature, David.”
All right, he supposed that this was true enough. But what was his nature? That was what he couldn’t figure out. That was one more part of the confusion he couldn’t hide or hide from.
In fact, these were things he couldn’t really hide from anywhere. He couldn’t hide in the bright sunlight of hot, Saturday afternoons when they went to visit Druze villages, the whole ulpan together, escorted by an old Druze who worked at the kibbutz and helped maintain the farm machinery. He couldn’t hide when they started out on those trips — sometimes on foot and at other times by car, traveling up into the shining hills. They would sit for hours around the living room walls of large, comfortable Druze homes, eating fruit and nuts and drinking endless cups of coffee. David couldn’t hide there.
After all the running and hiding he’d already done, running and hiding that had always turned out badly, he still didn’t understand how stupid it was for him to try to hide anywhere.
He also didn’t understand how stupid it was to try to hide, so to speak, within an idea, the ridiculous idea that during the two years since he’d left Harvard, he’d somehow managed to mold his character into the form he thought it should have.
Of course that was an illusion, but it did have one advantage: it did help him become a temporary part of what he considered one of the finest groups of people he’d ever known, a group of young people his own age.
About six weeks after he arrived at the kibbutz, around the middle of September, a group of Israelis his own age, young men and women, also came there to begin their army training. They’d be living together for several weeks at Kibbutz Parod, where David was, in order to get to know one another, to bond with one another, and to get to know what life on a kibbutz was like.
For some of them it was their first experience of such life, so some sort of orientation period was necessary. They’d all volunteered for two years’ service as members of a nahal or Israeli special forces unit that would live on and defend a strategic border kibbutz, the kind of kibbutz, perhaps, that David had had in mind when he came to Israel. Kibbutz Parod was where their entry into their new life would begin, a life in which they’d all, men and women, also eventually have to go through the rigorous training that paratroopers got. They were living in a time when Israelis still thought the enemy could be beaten with conventional forms of warfare.
Perhaps surprisingly, the group quickly became very fond of David — and he could hardly understand why they should. They accepted him almost as one of themselves.
He certainly became fond of all of them as well. Perhaps they all – David and the nahal – discovered that at some deep level, they shared certain important traits of personality and intellect, no matter how different from one another some of them might have appeared on the surface – and it soon became clear that some of them were very different from the rest, certainly on the surface.
In a way, perhaps they were all essentially loners and outsiders, like David, even though in many cases some were well-educated and came from well-to-do Israeli families.
Another odd – or at least surprising – thing he noticed about all of them was that they all seemed to have quite gentle sides to our personalities, along with what seemed to him to be an untamed — in some cases even a hard, wild — element. Every member of the group was an individual, but for David there was one whose spirit personified something that was common to them all.
Saranga was a lean, tough recruit, David’s own age, with only the most basic education, who seemed to feel an affinity for David. As happens sometimes with such friendships, it was probably based on the perception that each of them possessed qualities that the other admired and respected. Saranga was strong, intelligent, and more than a little wild, and David liked that. To Saranga, David probably appeared more educated than he really was, perhaps even refined. Besides, David was an American; he was someone Saranga could be proud of being accepted by. Each of them respected and deferred to the other in areas that the other was clearly more knowledgeable about.
Saranga seemed to regard David as a brother, and he seemed to understand – and feel proud – that David saw him the same way. It seemed to David that most of his life Saranga must have been treated as though he were hopelessly wild and uncivilized — the other young Israelis called him “Katanga,” a reference to what they considered the wildness of the Congo — and now he found he was accepted and liked by someone who seemed to have the qualities he lacked, someone who came from that exotic and glamorous place, America.
As for David, he liked Katanga’s companionship, the support of someone who seemed to him to be competent and strong, quite the opposite of the inept, incompetent dreamer that David had always appeared to be to himself.
Part 4, Chapter 68
“The mountains are generally arable to the tops, although instances are not wanting where the sides are jutted with rocks, that aid greatly in giving to the country that romantic and picturesque character which it is eminently possesses. The vales are narrow, rich, and cultivated; with a stream uniformly winding through each.”
–James Fenimore Cooper
The Leatherstocking Tales
The only difficulty in David’s friendship with Saranga was that they could, unfortunately, hardly speak to one another. Saranga’s languages were Bulgarian and Hebrew; he knew no English. Since David’s Hebrew was still rudimentary after a couple of weeks of classes, they often had to communicate non-verbally, subliminally, intuitively. They communicated through the things they did together: picking apples with the others in the orchard, hitch-hiking to Haifa and visiting Saranga’s friends and relatives. One evening he came to David and managed to ask if David wanted to go horseback riding. “We could go down to the orchards,” David understood him to say. “The Druze guard there has a horse. He’ll let us ride it.”
They started walking down to the orchard. The air was dry and warm; there was a full moon overhead. The trees and hills around them shone like silver. After a short time, Saranga broke into a run, and David followed him. On and on they ran over the hills, like two young animals in the moonlight, with the winds of Galilee flying past them.
When they reached the orchard, out of breath, they walked over to the hut where the guard spent the night. Saranga greeted the man and seemed to speak in a friendly way, but David could see that he also spoke with that strange, undeniable sort of authority that all Israelis of his generation seemed to possess then. To David, it seemed they spoke that way to anyone who was older, parents, teachers, Jews, non-Jews, whoever. David had the impression that they’d all somehow learned not exactly that the future belonged to them, but that it depended on them whether or not there even was a future. Because of this, their sense of authority and self-confidence was not only tolerated by the rest of the community, it was mightily encouraged.
In addition, they were given practically whatever they wanted. In other circumstances, this might have turned them into nothing but spoiled children. This didn’t happen, though, and what probably prevented it was the responsibility they felt for the survival of an entire people. David found they were all like Saranga, invariably kind and generous at the deepest level.
That night, David listened to Saranga speaking to the guard, politely, firmly, and with that self-confidence that he lacked so badly. The sharp, good-looking angles of Saranga’s face were thrown into relief in the muted light of the nighttime sky.
The guard handed over his horse, as requested. Saranga climbed on and galloped off through the trees. He came back a few minutes later and handed the reins to David. Now it was he who rode with the wind in his face, feeling almost as though he were the wind, feeling the animal straining beneath him, seeing the silver branches of the trees only a blur as he passed them.
In those moments, he was for a time torn out of the almost daily routine of sadness and a sense of loss, which from the outside seems self-pitying, but which he experienced as real and ineluctable. He could at such moments almost believe that what he was experiencing somehow compensated for everything that was gone, for the life at Harvard that had disappeared, for the life of the mind that had seemed to vanish with it, for the apparent destruction of everything he’d lived for once, and for all the rest of the pain. He could almost imagine that the excitement he was feeling then was at least as great as what he’d thrown away.
During the next several weeks, he grew closer to all the members of the garin — the group of army trainees that Saranga and the others belonged to. Perhaps it was the improbable connection between David and Saranga that somehow encouraged this. If two people who were as utterly dissimilar as David and Saranga were could like and accept each other, then David must be all right.
Whatever the reason, though, the others in the garin began to accept him more and more, almost as one of themselves. They shared with him their jokes and memories and hopes, and all the idealism of their bright, young years. David used to look at them sometimes, so intelligent and good-looking and full of life. Then suddenly, without warning, in the midst of his admiration for them the images of the emaciated, dead and dying Jews in the concentration camps would burst into his mind, the open doors of the gas chambers, full of ashes, and he would think, “But it’s a miracle that they’re here, alive, living and existing as they are. It is a miracle and it is wonderful. The sufferings and deaths of all the others — all that was a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. This, though, is something to wonder at.”
And so he began to feel a part of them. The lost and lonely young man he was seemed on the way to being part of a group. He was becoming friends with these intelligent young people he liked and admired. And they seemed so different from – so much finer than – any other circle of friends he’d ever had, even at Harvard.
To David it seemed that he’d had friends before, but never like this. And the feeling that he was almost one of them was something that had never really happened to him. He was afraid that if the experience didn’t continue, if it were interrupted, nothing like it would ever happen in his life again. He wanted to remain with the garin, in the warm sunshine of this land. He wanted to be with them always. He never wanted to leave.
And it was his loneliness more than anything else that drove him to form the idea of trying to join the Israeli army and become a member of the garin himself. Of course the idea was ridiculous. He was probably temperamentally unsuited for that sort of life — at least that’s what he told himself later, what he would always tell himself.
Part 4, Chapter 69
«Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir. »
Á la recherche du temps perdu
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and they bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast edifice of memory.”
Remembrance of Things Past
All of that happened long before David was at all aware of the origins of his mother’s family. Perhaps he should have listed more closely — instead of with his sometimes surprising obliviousness — to a remark that was imprinted on his mind once during a visit to some of Saranga’s relatives — a distant aunt and uncle.
They were apparently a quite different and perhaps somewhat distant branch of the extended family that had produced Saranga, or perhaps Saranga was a kind of anomaly even among his own immediate relatives.
In any case, Saranga’s aunt and uncle struck David as an extraordinarily handsome and refined couple; the thought occurred to him that in an aristocratic family they would have been the result of centuries of breeding – and perhaps they were in fact members of a kind of aristocracy. Perhaps Saranga had taken David to meet them because he wanted to show his relatives that, yes, he might be wild and rough, but here was someone who seemed to be just like them and who liked being friends with him.
What David would always remember of that afternoon, was Saranga’s aunt, tall, elegant – and beautiful in the same way that Saranga was good-looking – speaking impeccable English, speaking knowledgeably of the last war and “the Sinai campaign,” speaking of history, art, and politics. She represented for David an entire cultured world he thought he’d lost contact with forever.
At one point she was walking back and forth across the room as the cool breeze from the sea moved the long curtains aside and allowed the afternoon sun to come streaming in on the marble floors and the bright colors of the oriental carpets that covered them.
All at once he was aware of her saying, somewhat oddly he thought, “The last thing to go is food.” She had stopped for a moment and stood silhouetted against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, framed by the soft, beige curtains. “When people assimilate, the last thing to go is the food.”
Years later, what would seem almost unbelievable to him was that even though he never forgot that comment, her remark made absolutely no impact on him at the time. It was one of those sentences that lie dormant in the brain, sometimes for years, before gradually unfolding their significance.
At the moment Saranga’s aunt spoke, nothing related to his own life occurred to him. Much later, though, he did remember. The absurdly forgotten, Proustian memory of the whole range of simple Jewish cuisine always available from his mother’s side of the family — the blintzes, the bagels and cream cheese, the lox, the seemingly inexhaustible supplies of chicken soup.
And if he’d remembered then? If he’d known then what he understood about his mother years later? Would the good – but at that time lapsed –Catholic boy he was have been able to say that he too was Jewish, that he belonged with his friends in the garin? Would he have been friends with them all forever, as he wanted to be? Or would his past at Harvard — and those who were always ready to talk about it — have prevented that, as so much else was prevented?
After days and weeks of searching for a way to join the Army, after trips to Tiberias in which he found that his knowledge of Hebrew was so rudimentary that he couldn’t even ask the way to the Army office there, after one of the young women in the garin had even gone to her father, a foreign ministry official, to ask him to try to do something for David, Ilana said to him one day, “What nobody wants to tell you is that, since you’re not Jewish, they’ll never let you join the Army.”
If that had been the only defeat or disappointment in his life – and he thought of all his defeats and disappointments as “crushing” – perhaps it would have been harder to deal with. With his exaggerated sense of the tragic, he told himself that if he’d never felt pain before, he might not have known what to do or what to think now in this new situation. He saw himself, though, as having come to feel that defeat and disappointment and pain were in the natural order of things. They simply had to be accepted, stoically, without resistance, without crying out in a kind of raging grief, or what he thought of, melodramatically, as “raging grief.”
However, even thought it’s easy to ridicule him, it has to be said – again – that the pain and grief he felt were – for him – very real.
He dealt with his pain by rationalizing, by telling himself that he would have been joining the Army and the garin for all the wrong reasons — and perhaps it could be said as a sort defense of him that he took it for granted that other young men always did things for all the right reasons.
The “wrong reasons,” it was clear, were numerous. Not only was there still, perhaps, somewhere in his mind the weakling’s desire to simply die and free himself from the pain and difficulties of life – and that could be achieved if he was killed as a soldier – but there was also the paradoxical desire — as long as remained alive — to be a part of a group, to be accepted and liked by people that he liked and admired.
But all those reasons were clearly the wrong reasons, he told himself, so it was better that this desire too – the desire to join the garin – had been thwarted. In fact, he repeated it to himself again and again: of course those would have been the wrong reasons for joining the Army. Trying to be with friends he would remember for the rest of his life and would never stop feeling affection for – those certainly would have been entirely the wrong reasons.
He would never really ask himself if any other young man had ever joined an army on exactly the same grounds. He naturally – and with what seems his usual obtuseness – assumed he was the only one.
It may be true that young men volunteer for any army because they want to defend their country and, if necessary, sacrifice themselves for the land they are a part of or have come to feel a part of, but David would later doubt it. Whatever the truth may be, though, he would always believe that if he could have joined the garin, he would not have been out of place among his friends. And, he thought, if he could have been with his friends, would that have been such a terrible thing?
Eventually, of course, he would recognize that if he had been allowed to join the garin, he might have been killed along with some of those friends, members of the garin, who later died in combat.
He might never have escaped to tell this.
Part 4, Chapter 70
Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye…, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.
The Age of Innocence
It was now over two years since he’d left Harvard on what for him had been that cold and frightening day in spring. Now, somehow, he’d wandered into this land that he felt for a time was filled with life and light, where he’d found friends with whom he could share what was deepest and most important to him. When he wanted to stay in that land on his terms, though, he was rebuffed. He could not join the army or the garin. In spite of what Ilana had told him, though, he continued to try. One day – perhaps this should be mentioned again – he’d even traveled to Tiberias to try to talk with someone in the army recruiting office there. But he lost his courage, alone, confronted by a cold building, with bewildering signs everywhere in Hebrew, finding no one who could speak English, and without any real sense of purpose, except for a kind of emotional longing for a purpose. And that wasn’t enough. He left Tiberias without talking to anyone and went back to the kibbutz.
Before, though, while he was sitting there in the rather shabby building where the army recruiting office was located, surrounded by posters he could not read and by people he could not talk to, he had become increasingly depressed. Suddenly his whole life seemed to be in ruins, and he had no idea how he could ever salvage anything from it. He looked ahead and saw only more aimless drifting from one place to another, one group to another, one job to another. He saw no way of reclaiming anything from the dreams and hopes and ambitions he’d once had when he was at Harvard. Neither the spiritual nor the intellectual life seemed to offer any way out now, because for him there was no spiritual or intellectual life. Nothing seemed possible. There was nothing he could do. The weight of depression bore down on him relentlessly. The neuroses he saw as inherited from his poor mother pressed in and down on him with the pain of some cruel instrument of torture. And it seemed there was no one he could turn to for help, because he could not imagine any help could even exist for someone like him.
After all the years he’d spent trying to live a life that had some meaning, after all the suffering he’d gone through — and perhaps also in the midst of all his self-pity — there seemed to be no way he could escape from the dead end he found himself in. It seemed that all his life long he’d been trapped in bewilderment and confusion, and there was no way out. It still never occurred to him, of course, that he’d also been trapped into that condition of feeling incredibly sorry for himself. He didn’t understand that if he could break out of that trap, he could break out of them all.
When it was clear to him that he would never be able to join the Israeli army, Alti told him he could occupy his time writing letters to soldiers who otherwise would have received very little mail. David could be a sort of one-man equivalent of an Israeli U.S.O. or something. But even that idea depressed him. He wanted to be with those soldiers, not writing letters to them. Simply writing letters seemed to him to be an empty and futile existence.
The end of this period of his life — what he would later cynically think of as his “kibbutz phase” — came not long after that, in October, about three months – a long time for David – after he’d arrived. Alti said he could move out of the room he’d shared with the young Algerian and into a room of his own, a small and comfortable one-room structure near the kibbutz administrative offices. He was quite happy with that, and he felt as though he’d graduated to something, to some slightly higher status.
His happiness didn’t last very long, though, because a few days later, when he came back from work one afternoon, he found his two suitcases had been pulled out from under the bed and the contents thrown around on the floor. The drawers of the desk had been opened and everything inside pulled out. That someone would do such a thing — search his room, apparently — was bad enough, but what he found really depressing was that whoever had done it had wanted him to know it had been done. No attempt had been made to even try to hide the fact that all his things had been searched. Nothing was missing, but he felt as if he were being harassed, and he didn’t know why.
As usual, when things like that happened, he felt the tears welling up, and in this state of mind he went to see Alti and asked him to come to his room. He showed Alti what had been done, and in one blinding moment of sorrow and pain he decided — in the same way he decided too many things — what he should do next. He told Alti he thought he ought to leave the kibbutz and go back to the United States. He was too preoccupied with his own state of mind to observe how Alti was reacting.
He knew only that he was feeling too much pain again, and he wanted it to stop, poor boy. He remembered now all that was pleasant about America, and forgot everything that had been painful for him. He believed he’d been happy there and that life had been comfortable. He forgot how miserable he’d been. He forgot the worst parts of the army experience, he forgot all of the grief he associated with his mother and stepfather, all the grief they seemed to have created in his life. The more he thought about it, the more there seemed to be no reason not to go back. He even started to believe that if he returned to the United States, his efforts to find something to do with his life would actually result in something, would result in some significant achievement.
When he told the members of the garin that he was leaving, they were surprised – some were even a little shocked – and they were all more saddened than even David probably knew.
He was sorry they felt sad, but he consoled himself – and perhaps he shouldn’t be ridiculed too much for this – by thinking that if they’d known him better, if they’d known what kind of person he really was, they wouldn’t have felt the way they did. By now, he believed himself to be essentially almost worthless, and it seemed impossible for him to believe that there could be any real ties between other people and himself. It also occurred to him that this was perhaps why he was always leaving people, even abandoning them, in a certain sense. Besides, since he’d been shut out by his mother and stepfather and emotionally isolated and forsaken by them, he more or less unconsciously thought that this was the way the world must be. Everyone had to act that way sooner or later.
Of course it hurt to leave. Even though he’d done it so often, he still hadn’t gotten used to leaving people he liked.
When he walked away from the kibbutz for the last time and went to the place where the bus for Tel Aviv would stop, several members of the garin came with him.
Saranga wasn’t among them: he was still at work in the orchards. But the ones who did come were in tears by the time the bus came — and so was David. All of them seemed to have developed a strong attachment to him, perhaps even affection. He felt the same about them. It almost seemed to him that he was leaving the only real group of friends he’d ever known.
They were, in fact, the last group of friends he would ever know. Never again in his life would he be a part of such a group.
Whenever he thought of Israel in later years, it was those friends he thought of first, and of the moment he left them.