The Dri­ve

Yair Assulin, Jes­si­ca Cohen (trans.)

  • Review
By – July 2, 2020

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Hebrew in 2011, The Dri­ve won two major Israeli prizes: the Min­istry of Cul­ture Prize and the Sapir Prize for debut fic­tion. Its author, Yair Assulin, has since become a con­se­quen­tial voice in Israel through his reg­u­lar col­umn in the lib­er­al news­pa­per Haaretz. Hence, the Eng­lish ver­sion of the nov­el, ably trans­lat­ed by Jes­si­ca Cohen, comes weight­ed with cul­tur­al sig­nif­i­cance. It’s an intense, com­pact work that presents a point of view on Israeli life that may be unfa­mil­iar and quite sur­pris­ing to non-Israelis.

The unnamed nar­ra­tor of The Dri­ve is a young man doing his required ser­vice in the Israeli Defense Forces. Inter­nal­ly tor­tured, and deeply dis­sat­is­fied with his assign­ment in an army intel­li­gence unit, he is impelled almost to the point of self-harm. His requests for a change of assign­ment have been reject­ed by his supe­ri­or offi­cers, and the nov­el traces his thoughts as he dri­ves with his father from Haifa to Tel Hashomer Hos­pi­tal in order to see a men­tal health offi­cer who he hopes will pro­vide him with a way out.

On one lev­el, the nov­el presents a ver­sion of the eter­nal con­flict between the indi­vid­ual and soci­ety. Israel requires its young to serve in a mil­i­tary that val­ues con­for­mi­ty just at the time when they wish for inde­pen­dence, and the nar­ra­tor offers a sting­ing indict­ment of what is usu­al­ly regard­ed as one of Israel’s crown­ing achieve­ments: a demo­c­ra­t­ic and egal­i­tar­i­an nation­al ser­vice. Beyond the ide­al­is­tic pro­pa­gan­da, the pro­tag­o­nist feels, lies a soul-crush­ing expe­ri­ence. He rejects the val­ues of mil­i­tary ser­vice as a big show,” and finds all the talk about pro­tect­ing the home­land and giv­ing back to the coun­try was the emp­ty rhetoric of peo­ple seek­ing respect” — like the lieu­tenant colonel in his unit, whom he remem­bers from years before as a piti­ful, sham­bling sub­sti­tute teacher. He is also crit­i­cal of the role of the army in what Israelis refer to as ha matzav (the sit­u­a­tion), brought about by Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Pales­tini­ans’ resis­tance. The sense of futil­i­ty evoked by par­tic­i­pat­ing in this state of affairs is summed up by the narrator’s main assign­ment in his unit: lam­i­nat­ing maps of West Bank towns.

Is the nar­ra­tor moti­vat­ed by gen­uine feel­ings of dis­gust at a cor­rupt sys­tem or is he, like many peo­ple his age, react­ing vis­cer­al­ly to hyp­ocrites and phonies” — to quote J. D. Salinger’s hero in The Catch­er in the Rye,whom he some­what resem­bles? Assulin’s pro­tag­o­nist sees him­self as a lone truth-teller while every­one else exploits the sys­tem to inflate their ego or to gain some advan­tage. He is also some­what of an odd­ball in his unit because he is reli­gious­ly obser­vant, although that aspect of his iden­ti­ty is not ful­ly devel­oped. Ulti­mate­ly, one won­ders whether the pro­tag­o­nist is a reli­able nar­ra­tor or, whether he is, as his loy­al and long-suf­fer­ing father com­ments toward the end of the nov­el, real­ly … a bit of a narcissist.”

These two pos­si­bil­i­ties are held in ten­sion through the course of the short nar­ra­tive, and the read­er (or at least this read­er) is hard-pressed to deter­mine where the truth lies. Even in its ambi­gu­i­ty, The Dri­ve reveals facets of mod­ern Israeli cul­ture not usu­al­ly known out­side of Israel. It is a major addi­tion to New Ves­sel Press’s grow­ing list of sig­nif­i­cant trans­lat­ed fic­tion (includ­ing sub­stan­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion from Israel) that would oth­er­wise remain hid­den from Eng­lish-lan­guage readers.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions