The title of Shani Boianjiu’s vexing “novel,” The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, comes from a bumper sticker that presumably represents an attitude of survival for Israelis. The only problem with that is the novel’s focus: three young women, immediately after secondary school, fulfilling their military service. The trio—Yael, Avishag, and Lea—have been friends for years, since primary school, and grew up in a remote village where there has never been much to do. Once they are conscripted into the army, they’re in an entirely new world of discipline and order and, above all, boredom, since women are generally kept out of direct conflict and placed is less demanding but still important security positions. If the safety of the nation relies on women such as these, the leaders at the top have reasons to be worried.
The story—a series of loosely connected vignettes—shifts from character to character, that is, the three girls who are becoming women. For most of what we observe, the three are more adolescent than adult, with interests in sexual encounters, pop culture, video games and TV and, somewhat later, absurd situations once the three are given their military assignments. Lea, assigned to a checkpoint, alleviates her boredom by fantasizing about the Palestinian males who cross the border at her site. Yael, who is a superb marksman, trains young men, who are less proficient than she. Flirting with them is half of the fun. Avishag, similarly, guards one of the borders. All three, have little respect for the Bedouin and the Palestinians they encounter as they go about their daily routines.
In one of the more absurd sections of the story titled “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations,” Lea repeatedly encounters three Palestinian demonstrators—two men and a boy—determined to make a statement about their condition. The three show up at the border, day after day. One man holds a sign which reads “Open 433,” referring to a highway with that number. He tells Lea, “Officer, we are here to demonstrate against the restriction of our mobility, which is a collective punishment and against international law.” He speaks in “solid, accented Hebrew.” Lea has a document (“Means of Suppressing Demonstrations”) which tells her how to deal with the situation, presumably for much larger demonstrations. “Use from light to heavy: shock, tear gas, rubber.”
The first of these, “the shock grenade, was designed to stun and scare by creating a loud noise.” So she uses the grenade first, but to little effect. The men return the next day, so Lea and another soldier with her (a young man, called Tomer) use the tear gas. Again, to little effect. So that leaves the rubber bullets for the next encounter and the men, of course, show up the next day. All along, Lea has warned them about the methods she will employ to stifle their dissent, indicating that the means will become increasingly harmful if they do not stop. Thus, there’s a kind of dialogue at the border that illustrates the absurdity of both sides and their respective goals. When Lea tells the trio that she’s going to use the rubber bullets, one of the Palestinians tells her, “Shoot and miss, just shoot and miss…. We need to be in the newspaper. Page five, even.” The incident concludes with Lea’s observation that if anyone saw her standing next to Tomer and the young boy who was part of the “demonstration,” they might conclude that the three were part of “a family.” Indeed, too true.
The final sections of the narrative relate what subsequently happens to Yael, Lea, and Avishag—mostly mundane jobs, though Lea is married—but, in addition, flashes back into the past, relating Yael’s mother’s military experience during a much earlier time. Her situation replicates what has been told about the three young women, that is, an innocuous position, presumably at a safe location where little is expected to happen and a woman will be safe. When she was eighteen, Yael’s mother insisted that for her active duty she should be assigned a position as an “air traffic controller.” After much arguing, she was given a position as a controller in Sharm el-Sheikh, when it was still under Israeli control and for little interest to anyone.
It’s the same situation in those earlier years: nothing to do, unending boredom. There’s almost no equipment comparable to what controllers have today. Basically, there’s a red telephone and, if it rings, she has to answer it. Then one day, the phone rings and “she screamed. This was because…she had never heard a phone ring before.” She didn’t have a telephone at home; she was only aware of the one near the local market. Yet, the phone rings, and Yael’s mother gets her fifteen minutes of fame. I won’t reveal more of the humor of the incident other than to say that she becomes part of the aftermath of the Entebbe rescue mission, in 1976.
Parts of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid are overwritten, boring. Although the author writes in English, too often there are sentences (“There was becoming much more of her with every word.”) that read as if they have been translated from Chinese. And yet, Shani Boianjiu has talent. She has published in major outlets, including The New Yorker. My hunch is that after she had those successes publishing individual stories, someone suggested that she write a few more until there were enough to string together as a novel. A bad suggestion.
Shani Boianjiu: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
Hogarth, 338 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.