|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Back Bay Books (2005)
Peter Cochran, in his introductory remarks on Robert Bloomfield's Farmers Boy in Alsop Review, made a very entertaining observation regarding two hypocritical snobs: "Books, for both, are to be criticized and appreciated, not taken to heart." All too often this seems to be the attitude of many critics jaded and removed from the object of their particular dissection. The study of literature is not a dry, intellectual pursuit. The best critical work comes from writing about something you either love or love to hate.
Remarkable art bleeds through its flesh, and I'm a meat eating animal. When I'm fortunate enough to encounter a good literary effort, I sink my teeth into it in order to draw from it its last ounce of sustenance. I loved Matches, a new novel by Alan Kaufman. I also hated it for what it told me about myself and the age in which I live.
After reading Matches, I itched for days. But is an emotion or an itch sufficient criteria for evaluating a work of literary fiction? Joseph Conrad in his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, lays out his responsibility as a writer: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything."
If this is the criteria to be used, then Kaufman's Matches succeeds admirably. This is not to say it is without flaws, as there were a few times in Kaufman's novel when either the words, chapters, or the organizational structure got in the way of the story.
Matches deals primarily with a four year period in the Israeli occupation of Gaza during the second Palestinian Infitada, or uprising, and it represents the first great war novel of the twenty-first century. A superficial and natural response would be to compare it to the work of other war novelists like Hemingway, Mailer, or Stephen Crane to see how it measures up. This would be a mistake. Alan Kaufman is as unlike these masters as they are to each other. No masterpiece is without flaws, but they tend to be magnificent flaws. The few off-key notes that Kaufman strikes in this book are not magnificent, and they could have been avoided.
When he's on target, and he usually is, Kaufman is an uncompromising story teller we have not seen the likes of in some time. He is also a reporter and poet of considerable observational strength. His prologue to this novel has all the qualities of a fine prose poem. I was so taken with it that I read it three times before going on to the rest of the book.
The prologue begins where the novel ends and reinforces an inevitable cycle of hideous brutality, death, and destruction. Everyone touched is tainted; there is no redemption. War corrupts both individuals and societies, and it represents the major theme of the book. For those of us who believe that Israel definitely has a right to exist but have grown increasingly disenchanted with her tactics, this novel is a revelation.
Matches makes current American literary writing of the past twenty or thirty years appear insipid and vacuous. Had it been pruned in order to make it a little more straightforward and integrated, we would have had a postmodern novel of Dostoyevskian proportions gnawing at the belly of our own indifference and corruption. As it is, the novel approaches that level. Within a year, every scholar and generalist seriously interested in the Middle East will have read it and have it on their shelves. Why? Because this novel gives us a sickening, prophetic warning regarding what Afghanistan and Iraq could become if we let them. Coming to terms with these issues while exploring Matches in some detail is the subject of this review.
The first edition of Matches was published in October, 2005, by Time Warner Book Group. It is a softbound volume with all the slick subsidiary marketing and editorial tricks a sophisticated company such as this is known for. The production values are high, but if I were Alan Kaufman, I would have pressed for a hard back edition by another publisher. His writing deserves it. A master is at work here who can only get better and richer as time goes by.
Mr. Kaufman is a dual national, both Israeli and American, and this is important. This novel could not have been written by an American. It could not have been written by an Israeli. It is not a Jewish book nor an American book. It is both of these as well as a universal one. As a blurb in the back of the book states:
Alan Kaufman is the author of the acclaimed memoir Jew Boy and the coeditor of the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and The Outlaw Bible of American Literature. He has served as a combat infantry soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. He has also covered the Middle East conflict as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Partisan Review. He lives in San Francisco and is a member of PEN American Center.
The plot is simple on the surface but ultimately involved. Nathan Falk, the protagonist, is twenty-something, unmarried, and has dual American/Israeli citizenship. He also has artistic pretensions. Living in Israel, he's been called up an inordinate number of times to serve in the reserves stationed in the Gaza Strip. Matches is his story. Nathan's motives appear to be idealistic, but he does not appear to be an idealistic person. We see the hopelessness and degradation of the second Gaza Infitada through his eyes.
The novel pounds away at your senses like a gorgeous but unremittingly sadistic sexual encounter with life. The Palestinians portrayed in the novel tend to be one dimensional, but as I said, this is Nathan's story, and as a "grunt" involved in counter terrorism, his perception is both understandable and believable.
Kaufman is at his finest when describing things and dealing with situational dialog that he cares about. He is equally deft at handling the pace of his narrative and knows how telling a simple sentence can be. Kaufman's real sympathy is found in his treatment of the Bedouin.
Nathan is caught in the middle of events. Like most soldiers in war, his primary responsibility is to survive while doing his job and protecting his squad members. It is the language that propels this work of fiction. The pace is fast, and the key to the work is found in the first paragraph on page 141:
I felt something taking hold, shooting down diseased roots, but couldn't say what this cancerous-feeling infection boded or signified. It was as if the melancholy Gazan hues of my insides--my frequent mud browns, piss yellows, grays of mood, my secret depressions, black fears, a nagging sense of despair--all were reflected in the Gazan landscape, its very skies and streets, a private morbid condition peopled with faces of infinite hatred, the teeming masses of outraged and resentful inhabitants, their interminable blames. I hid the symptom from others, even from myself.
Nathan may be thinking that he is hiding the symptoms, but the reality is that these symptoms have permeated the cultural and personal lives of every Israeli and Palestinian living in that heartbreaking region. It represents a festering disease that seems to have no cure or hope for remediation. This is most remarkably portrayed in the scenes where Nathan becomes sexually involved with his best friend's wife.
While this is a work of fiction, it is obviously based on real situations. Alan Kaufman gives us a one-way ticket to travel with Nathan through hell. For Nathan and his view of life, there is no redemption, there is no growth, and like mud coffee, some readers will not be able to drink it all in at one time. They will have to let it settle.
The inspiration for the title comes from an Israeli term used to describe individual soldiers who when struck, flare up, burn, than die out and are extinguished. The material, while wonderfully written, is so gut wrenching that a decision may have been made to provide for breaks. Parts one, two, and four are superlative, raw, chilling and remarkable. With the exception of a page or two regarding the writer's infatuation with names and the Israeli art scene, the writing is controlled, precise, and memorable.
In part three, there is a chapter titled "The Spokesman." In it we find Nathan engaged in public relations activities, which allows him to have a relationship with a high ranking general and quote Auden. The Israeli army must be very democratic--imagine an American private developing a relationship with a high ranking general in Iraq. I suspect Kaufman is attempting to portray events on a larger, more strategic level, but this chapter seems contrived. The novel would have been tighter without it.
Fortunately, most of parts three and four are as remarkable as the earlier sections. I suspect that the arrangement of the book into four distinctive parts may not be the sole responsibility of its author and due to a number of possible reasons. However, the effect of this arrangement threatened at times to break the novel apart into a series of novellas. The editors may have been concerned with increasing the length of the work, which resulted in the arbitrary and sometimes puzzling organizational structure represented by dividing a 245 page novel into four separate parts. It reminded me of how Kerouac approached the problem in On The Road. In Kerouac's case, breaking his novel into parts represented a magnificent flaw, and it worked. The myth of Kerouac's marathon writing spree probably represented a question of rewriting prototypes and forming them into a whole. Matches may have been constructed along something of the same lines, but it doesn't matter. Alan Kaufman, like Kerouac, is responsible for an amazing piece of work.
At the end of Kaufman's book is a section on the origins of Matches by the author. I found this the least satisfying part of the book. This novel needs no justification--it can stand on its own. So why write one? The editor probably asked for it. At times, it sounded like a public relations spiel or defensive justification. In case someone like Oprah is still around hawking good writing, the volume ends with a reading group guide represented by a series of questions for discussion. Kaufman has also included a list of books for further reading. He's no slouch and has done a great deal of research for this volume.
Matches manages to somehow redefine our understanding of ourselves and our history. In it is a world where there are no heroes, only victims. We are transported into a universe of dusty, unrelenting traumatic assaults on what it means to be human and ultimately, come back to see ourselves through the eyes and actions of the characters. Only art can do this. It narrows and hones its focus, it purifies, sometimes in an embracing way, but in the case of Matches in a beautifully ugly, honest, uncompromising, riveting, and elegantly horrific way.
This novel is a gift of terrible dimensions, but the primary lesson we derive from Matches may not be the one Kaufman intended. The Arab world is large and divided, but no outside influence has a right to--or can--remake it into a complimentary image of their own choosing. To paraphrase a line by Yehuda Amichai, "We don't have to be a cutting knife, or a stuck spoon."