Sunday, April 13, 2014

"When I Was a Soldier"

            Some books I keep to myself.  Books like Just One Day and Code Name Verity, I will tell everyone I know to read, but then not really talk about it.  I love the book so much that I feel sharing it with someone will somehow take away the experience.  We all have our own thoughts and ideas about stories, and for some of these, I can’t bear the thought of having them changed for me somehow.  There are other books, though, that need to be read with somebody and then torn apart and dissected.  Books like The Book Thief, where no one person could possibly understand it all, have to be shared with someone.  With my latest book review, I really wish someone would read it.  I have so many thoughts that I want to share with people about the culture, and I want to know what they think back.  Maybe, someone who has read the book will see this and we can start a dialogue about my latest review.

Valerie Zenatti’s When I Was a Soldier (Published in French in 2002, first English translation in 2005) is a memoir about the author’s time in the Israeli army.  I will readily admit that this book is not what I was expecting.  Although it says in the summary that this book is about an Israeli girl, somehow in my mind I thought that this book was about a child soldier in Africa.  I only say this because I think it shows how unaware I am of this topic that despite what the summary says, my mind automatically went to something else.  Valerie Zenatti uses this memoir to tell us about her two years in the military.  In Israel, every citizen is conscripted into the military for two (for women) or three (for men) years to help protect the young country.   Although this story does not give us a date, the author biography in the back mentions that Valerie Zenatti was born in 1970.  That means that this story takes place from approximately 1988-1990.  This is important because it show that this story is not a story set far into the past.  This is a story about the experience that any youth may have in Israel today.

            Zenatti takes the reader through her initial anticipation before joining the army, through her beginning days of training, leave days, and finally her exit out of the army.  Zenatti’s case is especially interesting, because she was not born in Israel.  Born in France, when she was 13, she and her family moved to Israel.  In this text, her French heritage and accent are fascinating to others, and they are constantly asking her to “say something in French”(p.15).  Although this is a memoir about mandatory service in the military, Valerie Zenatti does not take too much of a political stance in the story.  Towards the end, she does take more of a revolutionary tone, saying to her friends, “’Well, we should stop dominating another people, we should withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Gaza.  Then we could really get down to tackling the problems in this country… Wasn’t this meant to be a socialist Jewish state?  Well, let it really be one!’”(p.190). Despite this very outspoken speech against what her government is doing, this is not indicative of the majority of her story.  Indeed, it seems to be the kind of grumbling that we hear against our own government from people all the time.  Throughout the memoir, there is not a revolutionary tone or any real bitterness towards the Israeli government.  Valerie Zenatti seems to have accepted her military service and completed it to the best of her ability.  This approach to the novel is important, because the story would have been very different if someone who was opposed to the government or military conscription had written the story.

            Translations are fascinating.  When I was an undergraduate student, I took two semesters of biblical Hebrew.  We discussed how no translation will have everything perfect, where every word and sentence will be able to convey meaning exactly the way the author intended.  With a text like the Old Testament, that can become a problem.  I remember being awed when I found out the way that some things were translated into English bore little resemblance to what they were in Hebrew.  So, reading this translated book made me automatically think of these issues.  This book was originally written in French, and I can’t help but wonder how good of a translation is it?  I know that it won a Batchelder Honor, an award given every year by the American Library Association for a translated children’s book.  My question, though, was whether or not the award was given based off of literary merit or translation quality.

            The American Library Association gives the Batchelder Award every year as “a citation awarded to an American publisher for a children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States.”  Based off of this requirement set by the American Library Association, the award is given off of literary merit, not the quality of the translation.  I am not saying that this is a poorly translated work—my lack of knowledge in French would prevent me from knowing for certain—but I do think that this is important to think about when reading translated works.  A work like When I Was a Soldier should be well translated to convey the author’s message of her life in Israel during her adolescence.  Other works, like religious works and political ones, need solid translations even more so than perhaps a memoir.  It is still important, however, to keep translation a consideration when reading a work that was originally written in a different language.  Different translators may disagree on different translations, and we have to trust that we are being given the correct message.  After searching the internet, I have seen nothing about the translation quality of When I Was a Soldier.  Hopefully, that means that no one has had any issues with the translation because it is a solid one.

            All of that being said, When I Was a Soldier is a fascinating read and I am certainly thankful that I read it.  The best thing about this story is its ability to open up the reader’s eyes to a culture that may be completely different from their own.  Many stories we read are written by Americans for Americans, or otherwise written by people like Shakespeare and Chaucer who have been dead for centuries.  This is a story that is set in modern times that is written by someone who does not seem to have any American connections and does not mention the United States really at all in the book.  Furthermore, the story was originally written in French, so it was not made for an American audience.  The lack of American awareness is great to read in a book.  I know how American works and how many Americans perceive the things that happen overseas.  What this book gives us is an insider’s look into life in Israel today, without any new implications or understandings for America.  Instead, the new understandings come as we take a journey with a girl that is just like young people in America today, witnessing as she goes from a young girl to a woman.  The new understandings are on a human level.

            This book is full of new understandings about Israeli culture.  This is the main reason why I want to talk with someone about it—there is just so much of the Israeli culture to discover in this book.  First, I had no idea that Israeli even had military conscription.  I can only imagine what life would be like in the United States if both men and women had to join the army at the age of 18.  Does Israeli have a high number of teenage pregnancies, like the United States?  What do young teenage mothers do when they have to go into the military?  Other cultural aspects, like how the country seems to close down on the Sabbath and how 18 year olds are able to go to bars, really helps the reader to get a feel for life for the average 18-year-old living in modern-day Israel.

 Another piece that interested me in this story was the mention of the Holocaust.  How does the nation deal with the Holocaust today?  We see glimpses of it, like when Zenatti runs across a Holocaust survivor on a bus, but there is only a few mentions of the Holocaust in the story.  One of them is when they take their “bac” exams, which seem to be somewhat of a finals test or an SAT.  For her history exam, Zenatti has two parts.  The first is history of the Holocaust, and the second is general history.  Zenatti says, “That’s how it is.  The Holocaust is separate.  It’s a history subject within and yet outside the history exam.  A compulsory section, almost a whole subject in itself.  It’s not a question which might just happen to show up…”(p.29).  It interested me to have Zenatti talk about the Holocaust like a student in the United States remembers September 11, 2001.  She wasn’t there, but she is aware of how devastating it was for her people, and her country has made the study of it mandatory.

Memory can be faulty, and I wish I could talk with someone about this story about that.  How much of what she has written actually happened?  Having just read several nonfiction books, where the authors has pages after pages of research and resources, I can’t help but wonder which parts were the author’s imagination. Of course, she couldn’t have remembered all of the conversations that were said, and that is not really a problem.  But were there other parts that she didn’t quite remember?  If this were a book that took a political stance, I think the amount of fabrication in it might be more important to know.  As it stands, I feel like this story is a good memoir about her own personal experiences during that time.  Different people remember things differently, and that is okay.

After reading Valerie Zanetti’s When I Was a Soldier, I feel like I have a much better picture of life in another part of the world.  So many books are solely centered on America and our own perceptions of things, that I sincerely appreciate the chance to read a book by someone who does not have that American perception in mind.  I urge other people to read it, and then find someone to talk to about it!
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