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Book Review : Betrayal That Destroys Belief Shapes a Modern-Israel Story

October 02, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Shimoni's Lover by Jennifer Levin (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95, 376 pages)

One way and another, every major character in this ambitious novel of modern Israel is Shimoni's lover; their lives shaped and directed by his charismatic influence. Shimoni himself is dead when the book begins; fatally burned when his tank explodes. "Sometimes you see a sight beyond description. Then the core of something is revealed: all layers stripped away, a squirming kernel of betrayal left that at once destroys belief in the purpose of things."

In one of many compelling flashbacks, his death is recalled and the design of the book exposed. The result is a novel that remains essentially didactic despite richness of incident, complexity of plot and Jennifer Levin's sophisticated technique. Though the characters are drawn with skill and sensitivity, they're constantly burdened by the need to deliver their messages and to function as metaphors for the desperate issues dividing their country.

Because there is so much to say on so many sides of every question, "Shimoni's Lover" tends to separate into set pieces. These vignettes not only supply essential background but often compete with the story. Like the songs in a musical drama, they're "liftable"; remembered long after the twists and turns of the plot have slipped away.

Basic Training

The prologue is a scarifying description of the first day of an Israeli soldier's basic training, a physical and mental ordeal that reduces most other literature on this subject to Pablum. Successive passages provide wonderfully intimate and candid views of daily life and work in the various types of settlements--the backbreaking and often demeaning labor, the austere living conditions, the continual tension broken by increasingly brief intervals of tranquillity.

The recruit in the prologue is Shimoni's younger brother Rafi, never destined by temperament or conviction to fit the heroic family mold. Instead of turning him into a warrior, the brutal training undermines his fragile self-confidence and finally unmans him. After years of struggle and vacillation, Rafi finally acknowledges his homosexuality and emigrates to the United States.

Nadav, the second-eldest son of the Kol family, valiantly attempts to live up to Shimoni's example. Seriously wounded physically and psychologically by his own war experiences, he is becoming ambivalent to the militarism essential for his country's survival; tormented by guilt for harboring such thoughts. In his attempt to establish his own identity, he seeks out the woman his brother loved and courts her with compulsive desperation. If he can make Miriam Sagrossa love him, he will have recreated himself in Shimoni's image, at least on one fundamental level.

At first Miriam is not receptive. An exotically beautiful but tragic figure, she represents the plight of Israeli women, whose collective agonies she reveals in a passionate midnight diatribe. Isolated in a remote and dangerous border town; mourning not only Shimoni but other men in her difficult and troubled past, Miriam is also the single mother of an autistic child, still another innocent victim of the terror and loss that are continual facts of everyday life.

Coping by Withdrawing

Yael Kol, mother of Shimoni, Nadav, Rafi and the adolescent Michael, wife of the most powerful military leader in the country, has suffered several breakdowns, finally teaching herself to cope with despair by withdrawal. Yael goes through the motions of kibbutz life like an automaton, her capacity for emotion long since exhausted by public and private tragedy.

The third woman in the book is Jolie, an American girl who came to Israel longing for love and a sense of community, hoping to find a mission and purpose in life. Much of the story is told from her relatively clear-eyed and unbiased perspective. Like Yael the mother, Miriam the widow in all but name; the younger brothers and the general himself, Jolie also loves and reveres Shimoni. After she had helped him with his English studies and he thanked her with a kiss, she felt useful and desirable for the first time in her life. Ever since, she has been trying in vain to recapture that elusive joy. Jolie, the outsider, becomes the recorder and interpreter of the fears, hopes and passions of the other characters, finally achieving the complete love of the only man in the book not doomed to live in Shimoni's shadow.

By the end of this thoughtful and probing novel, "belief in the purpose of things" has been questioned and confronted as directly as the fictional framework permits. Levin meets her urgent issues head on, never flinching from the moral and political implications of her theme. She has done exactly what she promised in the opening chapters--stripped away all layers to reveal a core of "something" we immediately recognize as empirical truth.

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