By – September 12, 2022

In a pub­lish­ing era in which even good fic­tion can feel over­stuffed or in need of sharp­er edit­ing, Yishai Sarid’s lean but pow­er­ful nov­els place read­ers in the hands of a gift­ed writer who knows how to make every word count for max­i­mum psy­cho­log­i­cal impact and read­ing plea­sure. In elec­tri­fy­ing prose that cap­tures the ten­sions and moral ambiva­lences of his soci­ety, Vic­to­ri­ous proves an excep­tion­al­ly wor­thy the­mat­ic suc­ces­sor of and com­pan­ion to Sarid’s post-Holo­caust nov­el, The Mem­o­ry Mon­ster—a dis­qui­et­ing work about the uses of Holo­caust remem­brance and ped­a­gogy. Vic­to­ri­ous is at once a haunt­ing char­ac­ter study of a com­pro­mised woman whose healthy libido, black humor, and acer­bic obser­va­tions help her to cope (up to a point), and an unspar­ing por­trait of Israel’s trou­bled soul.

Abi­gail is a mil­i­tary psy­chol­o­gist and lieu­tenant colonel who rel­ish­es her work train­ing com­bat troops and ensur­ing that they are effec­tive, unques­tion­ing killers. She is a bril­liant inter­preter of the night­mar­ish dreams of sol­diers and works to bol­ster their con­fi­dence and resilience before and after com­bat. When deal­ing with sol­diers on the front lines, she is gift­ed at forc­ing open the repres­sions and silences that might haunt them lat­er if left untreat­ed. She sharply intu­its the traces of trau­ma between the lines.… The shad­ows of the peo­ple they’d killed were in the air, I could see them hov­er­ing over their shorn heads.” Else­where she pre­sides over harsh inter­ro­ga­tion- and cap­tiv­i­ty-train­ing exer­cis­es that bru­tal­ize male as well as female pilots who might fall into ene­my hands. While Abi­gail is not pre­cise­ly an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor, we’re some­times giv­en rea­son to doubt her motives and per­haps even san­i­ty, espe­cial­ly when she repeat­ed­ly trans­gress­es the ther­a­peu­tic bond. The daugh­ter of a famous psy­cho­an­a­lyst dying of can­cer, Abi­gail is also a sin­gle moth­er, anx­ious about the fate of her young son (whose pater­ni­ty becomes one of the more charged dimen­sions of the novel).

In a series of dis­com­fit­ing episodes, we meet some of the narrator’s long-term patients who suf­fer var­i­ous forms of PTSD. We’re often made to won­der about the psy­chic costs on the nar­ra­tor, espe­cial­ly when Shauli, her sen­si­tive, artis­ti­cal­ly inclined son, insists on serv­ing in the para­troop­ers (under Israeli law, an only child is exempt from com­bat units). Besides its grip­ping scenes of mil­i­tary train­ing and the after­math of war, Vic­to­ri­ous may linger in read­ers’ minds as a pow­er­ful dra­ma about fathers and daugh­ters, moth­ers and sons. And Abi­gail is sure­ly the most com­pelling por­tray­al of an Israeli mil­i­tary moth­er since Ora in David Grossman’s To The End of the Land. Sarid’s com­pli­cat­ed nar­ra­tor time­less­ly cap­tures the messy essence of Israel’s con­tra­dic­tions, as in this pas­sage about the buildup to a mas­sive mil­i­tary cam­paign in which the nar­ra­tor has played an intrin­sic role: The radio report­ed that the war had begun, but the city was unim­pressed. It was as if nobody’s chil­dren were serv­ing in the mil­i­tary … The cafes were full of peo­ple, their mouths mov­ing non-stop, eat­ing and talk­ing. They remind­ed me of rats, moti­vat­ed only by food and sex.”

The prover­bial chick­ens come home to roost in this nov­el, though not in a pre­dictable way. Like Avn­er Man­del­baum, anoth­er spare styl­ist whose works explore the moral chal­lenges of mil­i­tary ser­vice, Sarid’s bold exam­i­na­tion of his society’s aggres­sive codes of con­duct proves shat­ter­ing in ways that pro­duce more ques­tions than answers. Noth­ing is ever as sim­ple as it appears in the author’s nuanced and dis­turb­ing look at the toll of sur­vival, mil­i­tarism, and aggres­sive nation­al­ism in the Jew­ish state. Trans­la­tor Yardenne Greenspan bril­liant­ly encap­su­lates all the immer­sive pow­er and sub­tle­ty of Sarid’s blis­ter­ing achievement.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions

The per­son­al and polit­i­cal are not polar­i­ties but inter­sec­tions in the work of Yishai Sarid, a for­mer IDF intel­li­gence offi­cer and lawyer who over the course of a half-dozen nov­els has emerged as one of the fore­most chron­i­clers of the Israeli sit­u­a­tion – includ­ing its psy­cho­log­i­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with its phys­i­cal occu­pa­tion of Pales­tin­ian land and Pales­tin­ian lives. That is one of the shad­ow-sub­jects of Vic­to­ri­ous, Sarid’s lat­est nov­el, the sto­ry of Abi­gail, a mil­i­tary psy­chol­o­gist and sin­gle moth­er whose essen­tial­ly matri­ar­chal role is to coun­sel the young recruits of her coun­try’s army, enabling them to com­mit vio­lence more effec­tive­ly. But her patri­ot­ic ded­i­ca­tion to con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing and even nor­mal­iz­ing lethal force is grad­u­al­ly under­mined as her own son approach­es mil­i­tary age and enlists in an elite unit of para­troop­ers, and as her father, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist him­self but of a more lib­er­al bent, and by his own account of a more lib­er­al gen­er­a­tion, finds his way toward open­ly con­demn­ing his daugh­ter’s com­plic­i­ty in what he can only regard as state-sanc­tioned crim­i­nal­i­ty. By coun­ter­pos­ing Abi­gail’s pri­vate ago­nies with her pro­fes­sion­al and civic respon­si­bil­i­ties, Sarid has vir­tu­osi­cal­ly per­son­i­fied a coun­try itself being torn to shreds, rip­ping at its uni­forms as if in mourn­ing for the Zion­ist dream, and unable to con­ceive of an ulti­mate vic­to­ry that does­n’t involve its own moral and eth­i­cal destruction.