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Original Essays

Looking through Rose-Colored Glasses at a Sorrowful World

by Ron Leshem
  1. Beaufort


    Ron Leshem
    "By turns, it is tragic, funny, mordant, irate, shocking, and poignant....A must-read." Booklist (starred review)

    "A gripping, viscerally powerful tale....An alternately grim and blackly comic war/coming-of-age novel." Kirkus Reviews

[Editor's Note: Translated from the Hebrew.]

I have always envied actors. What a privilege it is to wake up one morning and become an underage prostitute. When you get tired of that, you transform into a lonely, persecuted, Eastern European spy. Or a poor mother in an enchanting Bolivian village; a larger-than-life singer in Tehran; a corrupt North Korean general. As an actor you can go everywhere you are not supposed to be, and you can experience lives you have no chance of living. Or perhaps you had a chance, but you may always think you missed it because you chose a different path.

I dreamed of being an actor until I realized two important things: firstly, I have no acting talent. And secondly, through writing I achieve all these lost dreams better than I could taking a part on the stage. Writing is the best escape of all: it gives you a chance to duplicate yourself in any universe you wish, to crawl under the skin of even those people who didn't want you around, to love those who could not give you love — and to travel as far as you can.

In screenwriting schools and writing workshops, students are usually encouraged to write about worlds they know, to bring experiences from home, to incorporate themselves and their familiar surroundings. For some students this sort of writing is emotional therapy, an opportunity to deal with private wounds by probing them (and by exhbiting them). But for other students, this is not the case: all they have is a story, which may be good or not so good. This is important writing, of course, legitimate writing, grounded in the concept that even the tiniest pieces of our lives holds a story containing mesmerizing and moving moments. It's nice to believe in that.

Maybe I'll grow up one day, but for now, I can't write about myself; I don't find it interesting. Not my childhood in Tel Aviv, not my life as a journalist or as a TV manager. On the contrary — when I get home to my keyboard, in the late-night hours, all I want is to take off as far as possible, to get away. To sail into other people's lives, the lives of people I would like to understand and of those with whom I would like to be friends. This is writing created from a journalistic journey, from research. Writing that gives you an excuse to seek out special people, sit them down in front of you, and peel their layers away as you dig through their souls for hours upon hours. The less willing they are to talk, the more eager you are to peel them, because you are curious (as befitting a journalist, you can't take no for an answer, you like the unattainable). This cannot be lazy writing. This is particularly demanding writing that requires extensive research. But it is worth every minute of time you invest. It is infinite; it does not recycle itself inside a familiar, restricted world. And when you are inside it you recruit agents, you seem cold and calculating, conquering the human goals you have marked, but in fact forging a deep emotional connection with them, and along the way falling in love, surrounding yourself with lots of new friends from worlds so different and peculiar. And these are your texts.

You yourself are also in the text. You are not a character in the book, or the book's subject. But you are very much there, between the lines, emerging unseen, making your dreams come true, correcting past mistakes, living a mirror image of yourself. And for you, writing is the ultimate relief and salvation.

I was always a shy, reserved, introspective child. I kept my distance from any situation that posed a danger of losing control, of intoxication, of wildness, of addiction, or just of embarrassment. Perhaps I was too good. I was not a combat soldier. I never set foot in the snowy mud of awesome Lebanon. My skin was not dark brown or black. I did not fear for my life under missile attacks. I did not feel the true love of brothers in arms. My vernacular was not so free and rich. Those who fought there, only a few miles from the quiet bubble in which I grew up and where I still live, were different from me. Most were from poor, powerless families, children from the periphery, or new immigrants, looking for their ticket into Israeli society. They wanted to feel that they belonged, that they were contributing, important. These men and the members of the "national religious" camp made up the ranks of the soldiers who fought there. We — myself and people like me — sent them there. We did not always ask ourselves who we were sending to die for us (that is primarily a social question). We did not always make sure we were asking enough questions when we sent them. And I painfully admit that it was never urgent for me to peek into their lives there, to understand the pornography of daily minutiae in the dangerous outpost, a stifled shelter deep in the jungle in enemy territory, cut off, isolated. I did not ask questions until I stumbled across them, unintentionally, and realized how little I understood and knew. Only then did I become angry with myself and begin to research.

I wanted intimacy. I tried to peel their layers. When they talked, at a distance of some years from the withdrawal, they told me, "Yeah, bro', it was all for nothing" — the losses, the scars. They talked about the wounds they carry with them, about recurrent nightmares. Yet still, despite all this, there was something in their voices that missed those days, their lives in the outpost. A kind of romantic yearning. In the novel Beaufort, I tried to crack that yearning, to understand how one could miss that sad place. To discover the secret of that little country of children where there was no adult in charge, a tiny cement cage that was the lives of eighteen-year-olds in Israel, and what happens to this kind of group when it is isolated from the rest of the world, trapped in a sort of psychological experiment, wrapped in sets (Lebanon, the war) that magnify and externalize people's characteristics and weaknesses, their urges and fears.

I have always liked magical realism, in which the author pops into reality wearing rose-colored glasses. Even in a bleak battle scene, or in the life of a young prostitute living in the gutters, he finds sensuality and a human touch. A simplistic criticism would hold that romanticizing a battle scene is wrong, because it legitimizes war and makes it heroic, and is therefore dangerous. I disagree. This kind of writing, to me, if it unfolds into the right places, has a hugely effective power. It touches the reader's emotions and molds the reader's consciousness and perceptions far more easily than a text that is flooded with a gloomy weight that acts as an emotional barrier. This kind of writing is slippery and cunning. It softens the reader, misleads him, makes him expose his raw nerves and fall in love. And then, when he is tender and vulnerable, every burning contact really touches him.

But by employing this style, the author's attachment to the characters may make it difficult to write about their flaws. The fact that behind some of the characters there are real people, living and dead, who were your inspiration, may also neutralize your work, chain you with the fear of hurting them or exposing their weaknesses. But you cannot be held back.

The characters in Beaufort were inspired by real people whom I would have been afraid to disappoint. To overcome this limitation, I created one single character who was completely fictional, who never really existed: Tomer Zitlawi. It was he, the wildest and most liberated of them all, my favorite player in the story, the warmest best friend I never had, the other life I may have wanted to take on — it was he who turned out to be the truest character of the lot.

From among all the powerful and sad moments that accompany the publication of a book (and there are many — perhaps the experience is simply too much for one little person, and it throws you out of balance), the saddest of all is when your publisher asks you to stop playing around with the text and makes it clear that this is it, it's over, we're going to press. You wake up the next morning and all the characters are no longer there around you, they have all died at once, leaving you alone with a vast sense of bereavement because you no longer have a way to develop them, to lead them forward, to talk with them, to embrace them. Your home is quiet again at night. Happily, it is Tomer Zitlawi who still stays with me today, more real than anyone, and he probably will forever. His life is seemingly bleaker than all the other characters', but he is happier than them all, happier than us all.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ron Leshem is deputy director in charge of programming at Channel Two, Israel's main commercial television network. Beaufort won the Sapir Prize — Israel's top literary award — in 2006. The film version of Beaufort, which Leshem coauthored with director Joseph Cedar, won the Berlin International Film Festival's Silver Bear for Best Director. Leshem lives in Tel Aviv and is at work on his second novel. spacer

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