"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Historical melodrama à la mode: The Hope and The Glory by Herman Wouk.

….As the morning reports poured in, all the officers in the war room were looking cheerful for a change. Even the dour bone-weary Pasternak was studying the big table map with something resembling a smile. The girls were moving pins and unit symbols far into Sinai, except for Colonel Yoffe's brigade, which had not yet budged.

Operation kadesh was finally unfolding as Dayan had foreseen. The laggard British bombing of the airfields had done the job, eliminating the enemy air force from the fast-moving war; and the Egyptian troops that had been pouring into Sinai were in a headlong rush back to the Canal Zone. So at last - and this was why Pasternak was almost smiling - Yoffe's brigade could start down the track mapped out by the yarkon patrol along the Sinai's east coast; heretofore it would have been too vulnerable from the air. Yoffe had to go mighty fast, however, to capture Sharm before the United Nations voted on an American ceasefire resolution already under debate in the General Assembly. There were two enemies now, the Egyptians and the clock.

A soldier at the table: "Sir, telephone for you."

"Hello, Pasternak here."

"Crazy balagan," were Zev Barak's first words. "No use giving you a long story. I want your authorization to buy eighty-seven cows."

"Eighty-seven cows? Is this a joke?"

"Do you want an explanation, or will you just give me an okay? We have a serious problem."

"Let's hear it."

Barak glanced out the open farmhouse window at the

stumpy white-haired figure keeping the bulldozers at bay. The smell from the barns was oppressing his city-bred nose. "Okay, it seems there's this old guy whose cow bams extend a few feet into the railroad right-of-way. Actually one very long barn, all along the track. The trains cleared it, so he got away with it for years. There are eighty-seven cows in that barn. He's one of these old Russian Jews, built like a rock, a demented individualist. He says the rotten socialist kibbutz system is behind all this, he's made all the rotten kibbutzim look sick with his successful private dairy, and they're out to get him."

"So what? Knock the barn down."

"He's got an Uzi, and he's ready to shoot the bulldozer drivers." .

"Well, then, disarm the old lunatic! That's hard?"

"Sam, we got to talking. Turns out he knew my grandfather in Plonsk, in fact, he says he was once in love with my grandmother. I feel sorry for him."

"Zev, what the devil will the army do with eighty-seven dairy cows?"

"We can eat them, can't we?"

"By my life, you're as crazy as he is. You don't eat dairy cows, you milk them. Demolish the bam, I say, and fast. Tell him Solel Boneh will build him a brand-new one." Solel Boneh was the giant governmental road-building and construction corporation.

"All right, I can try that."

"Zev, you sound light in the head. What about your brigade? Is it on the move?"

"Definitely. Yoffe has started south, and I'll catch up with him when I've cleared this snag. The landing craft are loaded on flatcars in Haifa ready to go. The other demolitions have been done. There's just this cow bam."

Barak was in fact iight-headed, not having slept all night in the hard push to get the brigade ready to roll. He found the barn impasse weirdly amusing, and enjoyed baiting Pasternak with it. Moreover, short of using force on the old man, he really was at a loss.

"Do whatever you think best," snapped Pasternak. "Buy

the cows, shoot the old guy in the leg by accident, I don't care. The UN may vote today or tomorrow on the ceasefire. Move!"

Barak approached the dairyman, who, except for a bristly white beard, rather resembled the Prime Minister in his pugnacious jaw, heavy nose, and fierce eyes under bushy snowy brows. When Barak made the Solel Boneh proposal, the Russian exploded. "Solel Boneh? I worked for Solel Boneh! I quit Solel Boneh! The only thing in this country worse than the kibbutzim is Solel Boneh. Before Solel Boneh gets around to it, the Messiah will build me a barn."

"The army will buy your cows, then."

"And what will I do without cows? Go back to work for Solel Boneh? I fart on Solel Boneh!"

Barak took from a pouch his operation map of kadesh. "Look, Reb Shloimeh, here is how things stand." In quick sentences he sketched the war picture, making as clear as he could the mission of Yoffe's brigade, the reason for the demolition, and the race against the UN vote. "Without the replenishment by sea, Reb Shloimeh, the boys won't take Sharm el Sheikh, because the tanks and trucks won't have the fuel to get them there. And your barn is in the way of the boats I have to freight to Eilat. Zeh mah she'yaish." ("That's how it is.")

The dairyman listened, looking hard at the map and nodding. "Why didn't those fellows on the bulldozers tell me all that?"

"They're just drivers, they had their orders. We're racing the UN."

"I fart on the UN," said the farmer, lowering his gun. "Let me get my cows out into the field."

"I'll give you a document, showing that the government will rebuild your barn."

"Wipe your ass with the document. I'll rebuild my own barn."

Colonel Avraham Yoffe, the big burly brigade commander, had requested Zev Barak as his deputy because he knew him from the Jewish Brigade days. As Sergeant Wolfgang

Berkowitz, Zev had been adept at coping with the deep sand and balky machines of the North African desert. Also, Barak had been on the yarkon patrol, so he understood that the challenge to the brigade was as much making it down the Sinai coast, as taking Sharm el Sheikh.

Barak had risen to the job, had drawn up formidable lists of requirements, and had sleeplessly checked their delivery and distribution, driving Yoffe's staff to exhaustion and accepting no report except, "Done!" Now, as the long column of the Ninth crawled out of the Negev into enemy territory, there was no lack of spare parts and repair equipment in the ten-mile-long serpentine on wheels, nor of water, food, extra fuel, spare tires, and the thousand small items of a mechanized force on the march through a wasteland, carrying its own means of life support like a fleet putting to sea….

Herman Wouk's novels rotate around the same central themes:

1. A protagonist married to the wrong woman, too busy in his career to strike out boldly for divorce so he can wed the right woman, with whom he is having an adulterous affair.

2. The martial career as a prism through which the values of the middle class professional and artistic layers are observed and judged.

Wouk's Israel novels, The Hope and The Glory, are probably disliked as low-brow and old-fashioned, and also as defenses of Israel itself. They are massive potboilers filled with soap opera melodrama and second-hand politics.

I liked them. Usually I find I enjoy a novel most when the gulf between its politics and mine is unbridgeable.  I can relax and enjoy the writing and the hellish slog endured by the characters.

The hundred characters are hard to keep track of, but the complications and witticisms keep coming. (The point with these books is not to slow down.) And there are passages of humor and hard-won poignancy.


27 March 2018

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