Baring the face of bereavement
Israel turns 64

Baring the face of bereavement

Haggai Linik's Sapir Prize-winning novel is an unflinching and emotionally grueling look at the way a death in uniform seeps into the soul of a family

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Haggai Linik is far right. His oldest brother, Zohar, is closest to his mother. Maya Linik remembers washing Benjamin Netanyahu's clothes over the weekend when the future prime minister served alongside her son (Photo credit: Courtesy Haggai Linik)
Haggai Linik is far right. His oldest brother, Zohar, is closest to his mother. Maya Linik remembers washing Benjamin Netanyahu's clothes over the weekend when the future prime minister served alongside her son (Photo credit: Courtesy Haggai Linik)

On Memorial Day, Haggai Linik isn’t going to stand by his brother’s grave. For the first time in 44 years he is not going to fight his way through the traffic and the swarm of people to the west side of Mount Herzl. He is not going to listen to the siren, to the flat sorrowful wail, the “deadened, faceless voice.” He feels it is “fake” and “forced,” a failed attempt to hold together what has long since crumbled. The leadership of the state, he believes, uses the long B-flat note –he is a musician and he checked – “to train” the public toward obedience.

In a column for Yedioth Ahronoth he wrote also that, “I have stood there with my own body so that my dead, for the duration of the 40-minute memorial, will be your dead…but after 44 years, I am tired of playing the role of your agent of death. I quit.”

Linik is a writer. His most recent novel, “Required, Prompter” won Israel’s most prestigious literary award for 2011, the Sapir Prize. He is also a jazz musician who studied at the Berklee School of Music and a former professional soccer player (a striker for Hapoel Yahud when they were in the top league) and a former Naval Commando. He is tall and athletic. His writing is lean and precise. The bones of the story are presented like archaeological shards under an uncompromising light. This is somewhat rare in Israeli literature, where language is often dressed in resplendent robes. Rarer still is the fact that he does not believe that fiction should be the fruit of the imagination. Instead, he said during an interview at a café in Tel Aviv, “the statue is sitting in the block of marble; all I do is carve away the unnecessary bits. I reveal rather than invent.”

The heart of his fiction, the artful depiction of the unreal, is the truth as he remembers it, and at the heart of that truth is a death in uniform.

Haggai was 8 years old when officers in uniform came to his parents’ door and told his father and then his mother that their oldest son had been killed. Zohar, who served in the same platoon as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, was killed in a training accident. The term friendly fire did not exist then. This was in March 1968. His parents did not ask any questions, he said. “They didn’t care about the details. They were from a different world. From Europe. They didn’t know anything about the army. They felt obligated to the state. They were told that he had fallen and that was that.”

The death shaped the family. It sat like a slab between his parents and it left the remaining five boys to their own devices. Linik says that the metastasizing grief in the home was what kept him outside all day and made him into a soccer player. But it is also the material from which he carved an emotionally grueling, engagingly ominous portrait of the way bereavement trickles into the soul and permeates family life.

In real life his mother’s name is Maya Linik. She was born in Germany and at age 10 her parents put her in the care of a gentile family. Unhappy, she ran away and lived in the forest. In a 2011 documentary film that Haggai co-created, “Under the Rug”, she said that she did not wash herself or eat cooked food for four years while living in the forests and that men had ”done more than just try” to harm her.

In the book she is different. Her name is Mira, nee Norma, and she is a non-Jew. Her early years are not chronicled. Victorious Russian soldiers rape her. Then she meets Nehemia. He sees that her Yiddish is laughable. She sees that he is not a Russian soldier, as he claims, but a Polish Jew in the service of the Red army whose job it is to bury those who were killed while trying to the flee the front. They meet in a displaced persons camp in Italy, on the way to Israel, and quickly marry.

But that is not where we, the readers, meet them. For the first 90 pages of the novel we see them during the early days after the death. Not immediately after the message is delivered but during the dark days and years that follow. There are five younger brothers living at home, yet the husband and wife sit in silence, apart, at odds with one another, “she chasing the sunset, he striding toward the sunrise.”

Mira keeps a vigil on the balcony. She wears black, sits in silence, watching the bus stop on the far side of the street, listening for the roar of the engine, watching for her son in the image of each passenger, disappointed but not surprised when he does not arrive. Her cigarette bobs in the dark, in and out of her lips, “like a glowing hot insect.” Her back, for six days of the week, faces the rest of the family. She scratches at her chin, draws blood, keeps all life at bay in her attempt to hold on to the past, to relive the life of her son, to cling to him, dead on the outside and living in the past on the inside, and in that way to keep him alive. As for the rest of the family, she says, “Me, I’m not leaving my son alone.”

Her husband plans “to use the past as a springboard to the future.” Nehemia, like Linik’s father Mordechai, is a contractor. “Woe pinches him everyday like an aging, frustrated, mean-spirited kindergarten teacher who never carried life in her womb.” But bereavement, he knows, so long as it is never mentioned by name, is also his ticket to the head of the local council. He yearns for the position, cradles the inevitable certainty of election in his mind as he waits for her to thaw and for opportunity to present itself.

And that is pretty much it. Very little else happens in the book. There are glimpses into the past and looks into the future. The characters are filled out. Scars cover some of the wounds. But Linik is not interested in plot. “In soap operas you have to make things up,” he said. For novels “your childhood is a goldmine.”

The emotional truth of the novel, he said, bubbles up to the surface between the exact truth and the slight exaggeration. And it is in those gaps that we see the true face of bereavement: the way the younger brothers emulate Zohar, copying his hairstyle, his body language and even the tilt of his smile; the way the husband feels he can never compete with the love his wife maintains for her dead first born; and the way the death gnaws unbearably at the soul of the mother. This seems to be a gentler, less provocative way of saying what Linik penned in his Yedioth Ahronoth column: the pain is in the details. The details last forever. The siren is just a few seconds long.

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