Of all the euphemisms that stem from the desire to obfuscate the human cost of war, “friendly fire” is perhaps the most egregious. It doesn’t so much understate as it does transform the act of a soldier accidentally killing someone fighting on the same side into an ostensibly innocuous mistake. Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, Friendly Fire, reminds us that this linguistic sleight of hand, far from mitigating the loss of a loved one, often complicates the painful process of grieving.
The story, which unfolds over the eight days of Hanukkah, is told from the alternating point of view of Amotz Yaari, a 60-year-old elevator engineer in Tel Aviv, and his wife Daniela, an English teacher. This structure, often found in Faulkner’s work, is not without its pitfalls, as there’s a risk that one character’s narrative pulses while the other’s sputters. And so it is in this novel. Daniela’s side of the story brims with verve whereas her husband’s more mundane experiences can’t match.
While Amotz stays behind in Tel Aviv to tend to his elevator company and his 90-year-old dad suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Daniela flies to Tanzania to visit the place where her late sister Shuli spent her remaining days. Her brother-in-law, Yirmiyahu, a 70-year-old former Israeli chargé d’affaires who has remained in the East African country after his wife’s death working for an anthropological research team, is her host. Daniela, naturally under the impression Yirmi would be thirsting for news from Israel given his remote location, hands him a bag of filled with newspapers as well as candles to light during Hanukkah. Without hesitation, Yirmi, thrusts them into a boiler. Daniela is stunned.
Yirmi’s self-imposed isolation is non-negotiable. He’s taking a rest from what he calls the “whole messy stew, Jewish and Israeli’‘. He’s tired of carrying identity, history, religion, and war on his back. He’s saying goodbye to all that. In Tanzania, ``No one feels compelled to decide he is a Jew or an Israeli or maybe a Canaanite, or if the state is more democratic or more Jewish, if there’s hope for or if it’s done for’‘, he explains. He reminds a perplexed Daniela what she’s come for: “You came to revive your grief, not to poison my disengagement’‘.
Yirmi’s disaffection stems from the death of his son Eyal, a young Israeli solider killed by friendly fire—a “revolting expression’’ a “hundred times crueler than ‘enemy fire’‘’, he reminds Daniela. It’s a story she knows well as she believes it was the despair of losing her son that killed her sister. But what Daniela was hitherto unaware of was the lengths to which Yirmi, obsessed with this “stupid oxymoron’‘, had gone to find out the exact circumstances of his son’s death. With the help of a Palestinian pharmacist, and in exchange for a considerable sum, Yirmi tracks down an Arab laborer who knows how Eyal died.
As part of an Israeli army operation to kill a terrorist, Eyal is stationed on the roof of a Palestinian home. The family gives him a bucket for urinating while he’s on the stakeout. One night, he goes downstairs to rinse the pail in order to return it to the family “as clean as he got it’‘, and his fellow soldiers, lying in wait for their target, open fire. “My precious innocent son, dumb, civilized, the solider who commandeers the roof of a conquered family and fills the residents with dread—is ashamed to leave behind the bucket they gave him.”
In his telling of the story, the Arab betrays scant if any sympathy for Eyal—an indifference that gnaws at Yirmi and that prevents him from reaching closure with his grief. He’s hungry for some kind of commiseration from this stranger. Despite the enmity that exists between their peoples, Yirmi yearns for his compassion. Daniela is aghast when told of the Arab’s indifference, but Yirmi has little patience for her moral outrage.
“For all of their brainpower, the Jews are incapable of grasping how others see them. I’m talking about the real others, those who are not us and never will be us’‘, Yirmi tells Daniela. He comes to this belief after a conversation with the daughter of the Palestinian pharmacist who organized the meeting with the Arab laborer. Pregnant and bereft of hope for a better future, she offers an impassioned defense of her fellow Arab’s lack of sympathy for Eyal. “Why should I feel sorry for a solider who invades a space that does not belong to him and doesn’t care about us? Can we be bought with a clean bucket?’’ she asks Yirmi.
To Daniela, this is an added insult and crazy. Yehoshua, a critic of the occupation, wants to remind us how years of conflict have inured both Arabs and Israelis to their respective suffering. Friendly Fire is a call for empathy.