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Matches    by Alan Kaufman order for
by Alan Kaufman
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The title is what Israeli officers call their soldiers - 'one-strike flames that burned up and died.' Matches is narrated by Nathan Falk, 'a New York Jew who had actually acquired Israeli citizenship in return for the dubious privilege of getting called up to serve in the most dangerous army on earth, the Israeli Defense Forces.' The novel's poet and memoirist author, Alan Kaufman, is an American/Israeli army veteran, who worries about his own teen daughter's army service.

The soldiers Kaufman shows us are reservists, who alternate tours of military duty with normal civilian lives - the two closest to Falk (whom he trusts to watch his back) are squad leader Brandt of the movie-star looks and limo taxi driver Avi, a Fez-born Moroccan. Officers are despised but 'hulking, begrizzled' Sergeant Dedi (an art graduate history student in civilian life) is trusted to get them though 'in one piece'. Falk tells us Dedi 'had the darkstaring focus of a Ninja tenth-degree black belt.' Over time and various missions, Kaufman reveals an erosion of ideals in his hero - about Jew killing Jews, about the sanctity of his best friend's wife Maya, about the treatment of Palestinian terrorists' families (he speaks of the harrowing wails of women and that 'After a while, you didn't hear the cries.') Finally, the destruction of a doll's teacup precipitates an emotional crisis for Falk.

There are amusing moments, like Lieutenant Yitzak's misplaced fanaticism about an ongoing game of Risk. I found Falk's expressed incomprehension of the enemy striking, in what often seems to him a 'war of armed amateur thespians' - as when his unit lobs food over the border to Egyptian soldiers who later inexplicably attack them. How to explain it? Falk muses, 'I shrugged. I shrug.' He speaks movingly of the cousins' adulation of their suicide bomber heroes, that they do not see their 'handiwork splattered over the sides of the bus, the blood and dismemberment, the truncated schoolboy'. And I enjoyed an Israeli general's rant about the Western press - 'What a power you have, to completely rearrange the face of reality into your own idea of things: why, into something that does not resemble itself even a little!'

The author's essay on the Middle East at the back of the book is almost as interesting as the novel itself. In it, he tells us he wanted to show the 'personal consequences' of warfare, the challenges it poses to soldiers' 'decency and humanity'. Kaufman succeeds very well in his stated objective, via the thoughtful soldier hero who leads readers through Matches.

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