March 2005

Joey Rubin

nonfiction

When I Was a Soldier by Valerie Zenatti

Of the 300 or so foreign books that are translated into English and published each year in the United States, it is not difficult to imagine why Bloomsbury's Children's Books chose to publish a translation of Valérie Zenatti's When I Was A Soldier. As a memoir intended for young adults "ages 14 and up," inspired by the author's experiences while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, Soldier is certainly unique; in today's political climate, where the Middle East performs on center stage, it is definitely timely. Clearly, such a book serves the invaluable purpose of offering insight into a culture and a national experience that is so distant, yet so relevant, to American readers. And as a book specifically written for and marketed to teenagers, it has the potential to widen the horizons and increase the cultural sensitivity of our most impressionable citizens.

But what is most unusual about this book is that it was written specifically for a "foreign" -- not Israeli -- audience. Born and raised in France, Zenatti immigrated to Israel when she was thirteen, and subsequently experienced Israeli service as an outsider. Importantly, when she chose to write about these experiences in Soldier, Zenatti did so in France, and in French. Clearly, her memoir about experiences in Israel is not intended for Israeli readers -- it is not a culturally self-reflexive work. It comes to the US as a European book about a European's experiences in the Middle East; it looks outward, in a way, explaining an outsider's experiences for other outsiders.

In this way, Zenatti's memoir dramatizes an experience that most of its European and American readers will share: The experience of an outsider "looking in" at a quintessentially Israeli experience during a particularly volatile period in the region. It is not surprising, then, that a prominent theme in Soldier is Valérie's complex relationship to Israeli identity and nationality in light of her connections to French and Jewish diaspora culture. Likewise, it is not surprising that Valérie struggles in Soldier to come to terms with many of Israel's most daunting political and social problems, such as its relationship to the Palestinian people.

When I Was A Soldier is most powerful when it manages to examine these difficult issues for their emotional impact on a girl entering adulthood, and not in terms of their general political significance. Because ultimately, we come to understand, "you go [into the army] as an adolescent and, apparently, come out as an adult." This process, for Valérie, our self-aware but still self-conscious 18-year old narrator, realistically involves not only deciding where to stand in relation to the Palestinian issue, but in relation to French ex-boyfriends and even future career choices.

Zenatti's debut work is strongest when it balances the universal "coming of age" themes with the specific challenges of growing up in the politically unstable country that Israel is. She offers a penetrating discussion of nationality, when Valérie's longing for her ex-boyfriend recalls the love an immigrant can feel for her abandoned homeland, for unlike her, he is a French national who has chosen not serve in the Israeli army. But themes of nationality are given secondary importance to Valérie's more "simple" girlhood emotions, of hope, sexual awakening and fear of rejection. And in dealing with such mundanity, Zenatti offers readers their most authentic access to the Israeli teenage experience.

When I Was A Soldier comes tellingly to life when Valérie is depicted as aware of the political turmoil around her, but unquestionably a young adult searching for human comfort and identity, in spite of the turmoil. For older readers hoping to gain a deep understanding of a nascent political consciousness or a well-considered political stance of a young adult, When I Was A Soldier is the wrong book. For young American readers hoping to understand what their own life experiences might have been like had they moved to Israel at thirteen, had they been asked to serve in defense of their adopted home-country, When I Was A Soldier is compelling -- not because it tells an unconventional story, but because it tells a universal story which happens to be set in a troubled and misunderstood land.

When I Was A Soldier by Valérie Zenatti
Bloomsbury's Children's Books
ISBN: 1582349789
235 Pages