‘Pumpkinflowers’: A Review of Matti Friedman’s New Novel
Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story by Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 242 pp. $25.95)
Soldiers’ memoirs provide an unvarnished window into war. Stripped of propaganda, they help readers understand the daily boredom and sporadic violence of soldiers’ lives. Matti Friedman’s heart-wrenching book does this with a twist: The time he describes isn’t an actual war but a military operation, the period in the 1980s and 1990s when Israeli soldiers fought Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Friedman calls it “a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war,” but for the soldiers who served there, it provided a disturbing coming of age.
Pumpkinflowers is part history, part memoir and part journalism. The book’s title comes from two Israeli Army terms: Pumpkin was the name of the hill where Friedman and his fellow soldiers served; and wounded soldiers in Lebanon were known as flowers.
Friedman splits his book into four sections: The first focuses on the soldiers who served in southern Lebanon; the second reports on the growing Israeli sentiment in favor of pullout (“We arrived back in a country no longer sure if the soldiers in Lebanon were heroes or victims,” he writes), which gained steam after a 1997 plane crash killed 73 soldiers who were returning to the Pumpkin from Israel. The third recalls his own service at the outpost; and the fourth recounts his return to southern Lebanon several years after the pullout.
Soldiers passed their time engrossed in the routine of daily life, save for a daily early-morning military exercise called Readiness with Dawn, “a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began,” he explains. Hezbollah attacks, of course, punctuated this routine with deadly results, and Friedman’s descriptions of military battles are both terse and harrowing.
A native of Toronto who made aliyah, Friedman is a journalist known for his award-winning book on a medieval manuscript, The Aleppo Codex. He argues that the morass Israel encountered in Lebanon—its soldiers unable to defeat an enemy that blended in with and had the sympathy of local residents—was a precursor to the struggles Western societies now face. “Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events,” he writes. The major political lesson to be learned in this book is dark: Islamic movements with fanatically dedicated followers have an inherent edge in fighting Western-based democracies.
Friedman writes with a keen eye for detail and an elegiac, reflective tone. The Pumpkin, he writes, was transformed into “a scene of emotion and drama” and then transformed again into “a place of no importance at all.” Most importantly, he writes with empathy for his fellow soldiers, teenagers and 20-somethings in an increasingly unpopular operation that would have harmful effects on so many of them. His book will linger in the minds of readers long after they finish it.
Peter Ephross edited a collection of oral histories, Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words.