Like a lot of American Jews, the author Alan Kaufman has served as a volunteer in the Israel Defence Force and this experience has informed the fictional account of Nathan Falk’s observations of life as a soldier in the Gaza Strip in the book, ‘Matches‘.
Nathan Falk’s reward for volunteering for a foreign army is a passport to a nation that Palestinians will never be able to call their own. If all you know of the Israel-Palestine conflict has come from newspapers and TV then this book will serve as a reminder that the soldiers of the IDF endure their own suffering. In one episode, Falk’s companions show more interest in the game of ‘Risk’ they play during downtime than the fact that they are about to go out on patrol and possibly die. Told in short bursts, this novel serves as a rich condensation of life in the military where a soldier must endure the so-called ‘low intensity’ combat of terrorism. No punches are pulled as to why the IDF are in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and why the Intifada – and the Israeli response – became so brutal: trying to live ‘normal’ life when suicide bombers walk onto your buses and into your cafes is near impossible. There is more than a mere suggestion that the Palestinian people have been betrayed by neighbouring Arab nations who simply use them as an ‘irregular’ army.
Falk is shown fighting alongside soldiers drawn from the various peoples of Israel whether (Christian) Druz or (Muslim) Bedouin or Jewish, the IDF is shown to be a truly multi-national force but this is no propaganda piece. Lieutenant Yitzak, most keen player of ‘Risk’ and Falk’s platoon commander, is shown getting beaten by a Ukranian immigrant hoodlum with known connections to the Russian ‘Mafiya’. Falk and his companions are shown in a quite merciless light and no fancy language can hide the fact that these are young men – and women – with guns and mightily p*ssed off.
Falk is shown off-duty having an affair with his best friend’s wife, while his friend is in combat along the Lebanon border. We are also witness to the tragic end to the first romance between a Bedouin scout’s sister and one of the soldiers. The ‘Matches’ that the title of the book refer to are the soldiers for this is the term that officers use to refer to their men in the Israel Defence Force. Among the troops, it has come to mean someone who strikes, burns and dies. Falk feels the loyalty of his comrades too keenly to walk away but can feel everything he thought important slipping away as the Intifada heats up.
This is more than a combat novel but a stunning character piece set against a collision of cultures that can be so different from our own. This is no dense epic or history, recounting of woe or settling of scores but simply a story that moves with the same brisk pace as any airport pulp-novel. I read this in one sitting while waiting for a plane. While ‘Matches‘ ranks alongside the great military books of the Twentieth Century such as Mailer’s ‘The Naked and The Dead’ and O’Brien’s ‘If I Die in a Combat Zone’, it stands alone as an account of not ‘why’ or ‘how’ but ‘what‘ in any telling of the Israel-Palestine conflict that has raged since the failed ‘peace’ at the end of WWII. The ‘what’, of course, is ordinary people enduring extra-ordinary things and ensures that this book should be recommended to everyone.