Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from The New Yorker, 6/25/12

New Yorker art by Tomer Hanuka

New Yorker art by Tomer Hanuka

She knew that her military service was approaching its end, but could not feel it. She could not imagine or remember any of the things she had wanted before she became a soldier, and struggled to find things she wanted for her civilian life ahead. She guessed that she must want a family, or to get into a good school, but she guessed this from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself. When she first began feeling this way, less than a year into her service, after the neck of one of the soldiers at her checkpoint was cut almost in half, she decided that the only reasonable thing she could truly want must exist inside the Army, so she applied to become an officer. She did not want to be a dumb checkpoint soldier anymore, the type whose neck could get cut almost in half. She wanted to be able to yell at soldiers who put their necks where they might get cut. She grew to accept that her service time would begin and end in the Transitions Unit, but figured that if she had to be at a checkpoint she might as well be an officer.

I still remember the first time music gave me goosebumps. It was Christmas 1966, I was eleven, and my brother played Simon & Garfunkel’s “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News” (on a vinyl LP) for me. At first I thought something was wrong when I heard the voice; he didn’t say anything, just waited until I figured out what was happening. And I began to realize, in my immature and unsophisticated twelve-year-old way, what music could do.

I don’t really remember what story or book first affected me like that – I’m going to guess it was either “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke, or Asimov’s “The Last Question,” both of which I would’ve read for the first time at about the same age, during an incongruous period when I was still misspending my youth as a Southern Baptist fundamentalist yet reading science fiction. The goosebumps happened fairly often once I started reading seriously.

They happened again when I read this story.

It’s what “A Brush” could have, should have been, but wasn’t. The structure, the characters, the plot, the language work together, sing together, to say more than you’d think any story could say. I have to give kudos to Aaron Riccio, who put his finger on it in his Short-a-Day blog post: “Yes, Israelis and Palestinians are different, but they’re both so defined and limned by their decades long conflict that, well, don’t they have at least as much in common now, too?”

The story is available online and is another of those stories that needs to be read, experienced, not read about, so I’m not going to go into a great deal of description. It’s about what happens under certain conditions, how people deal with it, and how baffling it is that, given the kindness of strangers even when regimented to the utmost, the Middle East is still such a mess. I think there’s more to the shock-gas-rubber-live fire progression than meets the eye; for me it mimics the denial-bargaining-anger-depression-acceptance routine the dying are said to go through

After you’ve read it, there’s a terrific discussion – genuine discussion that remains civil though incorporating strongly held differences of opinion – on The Mookse and the Gripes. It raised issues I hadn’t really considered.

I will say I dreaded reading the story during the first paragraph: “Oh, dear, another story about a miserable Israeli soldier.” I’m not big on soldier stories, especially ones where I’m likely to feel hot and dry and helplessly snarled in unsolvable issues. But once I figured out what was going on –the complexity of it, the structure the writer used to move from beginning to end – the goosebumps started, and they didn’t fade until well after I’d read the last line, which was that inevitable surprise every story writer hopes for. I was actually breathless – not because of any exciting action or fast pace or pyrotechnics of language, but because, well, it literally took my breath away, I’m not sure how, I wasn’t paying attention to mundane things like breathing. I was too busy reading. Figuring out who’s in charge. Who’s helping/hurting whom. And the end line, aren’t we all.

Shani Boianjiu’s interview is excellent as well:

One time I taught a group of reservists. They were all much older than I was, and they mocked the instructions I was giving them. They thought that the expectation that, in the heat of a confrontation, they could measure their precise distance from the demonstrators to make sure that the tools they were using would prove effective rather than fatal was ludicrous. One reservist asked me if I could imagine a scenario in which soldiers would have time to measure all these distances while at the same time trying to control a wild demonstration. I couldn’t, but I wanted to be able to imagine it. So I wrote this story.

She also discusses how desire, and Lea’s lack of desire, ended up in the story: “I think being desireless is one of the lowest places a person can be, and I know that, for myself, when I was in that situation I was truly fascinated by people who wanted things.” Turns out Lea is a character in a forthcoming novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. Here’s where I normally go on a rant about excerpts, but for one thing, it’s not clear whether the story is part of the novel, or if it’s just the character that made the leap. More importantly, this reads like a complete short story. And a really good one.

Goosebumps good.

3 responses to “Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from The New Yorker, 6/25/12

  1. Well, I’m back to see what you’ve written here about another story I’ve read months after its publication! I, too, really enjoyed this piece, although I kept wondering if I *should*. When I started the story, I thought, Oh no, not this, but I kept reading and reading and at the end, thought, Wow. The story might piss off both people supportive of Israeli policies & the military as well as Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists, so maybe it has transcended the politics and gotten at something “real” about the conflict.

    The only thing that continues to bug me is that although both the Jewish and Palestinian characters seem equally trapped in a ludicrous & intractable situation, the Palestinian characters, with their absurd demand to be subjected to force so they can end up in the newspaper, seem cartoonishly & laughably ridiculous, while Lea, with her numb “desirelessness” seems–well, tragically human. One could almost read this and think Israeli soldiers are all tired, peace-loving folks just doing their job while the Palestinians are out there actively & childishly “asking” for it. I don’t know if the online discussions you recommend in your post get at any of this.

    Anyway, thanks for another illuminating commentary. I’ll be back for more!

    • Hi Naomi, I’m glad you’re back – stories don’t have an expiration date. 😉

      I know what you mean about “should.” It’s such a complex situation. I can’t begin to parse “right” and “wrong” (or even if those terms have any real meaning) so I just approached it as a story, not as a real-world situation. If you check out the Mookse & Gripes link above, I think you’ll find some interesting reading – not only do several people talk about seeing it as surreal, there’s one poster who raised pretty much the same issue you mention: the Palestinians are cast as the “other” since the protagonist is the Israeli soldier.

      On a story level, I found it extremely tension-filled, the situation incredibly fragile. Either side could have taken things in a very bad direction. Yet things resolved, and both sides pretty much “got” what they wanted with the cooperation of the “enemy.”

      I see both “sides” as part-sad and part-strong, and both the sad and the strong stem partly from themselves, and partly from forces and circumstances outside themselves. I saw it as almost like a chess match or football game: they both wanted to accomplish something, and by playing within the rules of the game, they both succeeded. One football team (or chess player) may hate the other, but they still play within the structure of football (or chess). That’s a kind of agreement underlying whatever the conflict is – whether it’s a game championship or a complex set of hostilities going back millennia. It seems to me that’s something.

      What nailed it for me was the last line, that they looked like a family. Because, of course, they are (as are we all, but Jews and Arabs are specifically related). And that’s the biggest problem, and the biggest hope, of all.

  2. Pingback: Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace (1963) | A Just Recompense

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