by Olga Stein
Moral ambiguity marks Avner Mandelman’s collection of short stories, Talking to the Enemy (Oberon, 88 pages, $13.95 paper, ISBN: 0778011097). The principal characters are male, between the ages of twenty and forty-five, and fighters: secret agents staking out ex-Nazis, MOSAD recruits in training, or seasoned soldiers tracking down Arab terrorists. They are avengers whose mission is to exact retribution for crimes committed against their people. What captures the reader’s interest, however, is not how the characters are engaged in the stories, but the way in which Mandelman delimits their moral vision, their sense of right and wrong.
An injunction in the Bible warns vengeance seekers to be watchful of their state of mind when punishing wrongdoers lest they themselves become vile in the eyes of God. In other words, a criminal should be killed out of duty, not for pleasure. This injunction suggests then that extreme violence and sadistic practices, even for the purpose of punishment, are not only morally wrong, but dangerous in their power to pervert ordinary men.
While a traditional Jewish story-telling approach would have incorporated this injunction, Mandelman, clearly, is not a traditionalist. His stories are irreverent, replete with ugly language and brutal acts which give satisfaction to those who perpetrate them. To Mandelman’s credit, all this amounts to an engrossing depiction of the scorched earth of the avenger’s psyche. The men are in various stages of losing their humanity (one character in “Why I Quit the Army” actually regains his while attempting to paint a young woman’s face, but this exception only serves to prove the rule). Mandelman offers a glimpse, albeit through his particular peephole, of the way in which the pursuit of vengeance skews personal ethics—as much a consequence of personal choice as of pressure applied by the organization dedicated to this task.
The men in this book are neither heroes nor antiheroes. They are ordinary men forced to function under extraordinarily stressful conditions. Some are more successful than others. Success—and here Mandelman plays the irony card most effectively—is contingent upon the characters’ willingness to excise basic human emotions such as pity.
In “Test”, a secret service agent recounts how a fellow recruit failed the Authorization Test by allowing himself to be distracted by the wails of a woman. Opting to help the woman, the recruit failed to carry out his assignment. The woman was a decoy, a female agent used for the purpose of weeding out unsuitable candidates, and the man she succeeded in distracting was admonished and dismissed from the service. An exquisite touch of irony is added at the end of the story when the narrator tells us that this particular test was ultimately eliminated because over time recruits no longer failed it.
In the last story, an ex-army officer chides himself for failing to kill a Hizbollah terrorist who was with his young sons. His inability to kill an enemy because he may have harmed a child costs him his position in the special services. At the end of the story, he succeeds where previously he had failed: he avenges the murder of his own five-year-old son by taking part in a retaliatory operation, storming the home of the terrorist responsible, and killing him and his thirteen-year-old son. The author celebrates this success: “Dad and the guys gave me a little party in his villa, without wives, and after we finished all the Johnny Walkers and the Stock 777s we watched the video [of the operation]. I didn’t get sick at all, this time. It looked pretty good.” The next day he has sex with his now married ex-wife—something he could not bring himself to do before. Mandelman’s methods may be heavy-handed, but his message is clear: his character is not evil, but he has morally compromised himself.
Themes such the absence of pity, the killing of children, and sexual relations without love or commitment are skillfully revisited in each of the stories, creating links and thought-provoking juxtapositions. In “Life in Parts”, a trip to Paris concludes with a visit to an unused, crumbling train station where trains filled with Jews being transferred to concentration camps were temporarily stationed. An aging French Jew tells his son-in-law that the residents of that area had known Jews were on those trains. Everyone knew, but no one bothered to even bring them water. The French had no pity, is the point he is making, and yet it is pity the special branches of the Israeli military insist its recruits must “leave at home”. In “Pity”, a little girl is killed by an Israeli secret service agent because she is mistakenly thought to be the niece of an ex-Nazi. The agent first threatens to kill the girl in an effort to stop the man from fleeing, and when the threat proves fruitless, the agent cuts her throat. In some stories, it is Israeli children who are killed by terrorists. Their deaths are mourned and subsequently avenged. Two Arab terrorists, “frightened teenage boys”, are brutally slain (the soldiers “took turns shooting single bullets into their bellies”) because they blow up a nineteen-year-old mother and her baby “to palm-size bits”.
Mandelman masterfully blurs the line between victim and victimizer, crime and punishment. Acts of vengeance produce no winners; ugliness begets more ugliness. This is a strong point. In a world of so-called freedom fighters and governments that commit murder in the name of national defense, one should remember that in the game of tit-for-tat everyone pays for the moral toll is inescapable.