Assulin, Yair. “The Drive”, New Vessel Press; Reprint edition, 2020.
To The Breaking Point
Originally published in Israel in 2011 in Hebrew, Yair Assulin’s “The Drive” (translated by Jessica Cohen) is the story of the journey of a young Israeli soldier who is at the breaking point and unable to continue carrying out his military service. He is terrified of the consequences of leaving the army. As the soldier and his father drive to meet with a military psychiatrist, the author penetrates the torn world of the hero. His journey is not just that of a young man facing a crucial dilemma, but we are taken on a tour of the soul and depths of Israeli society and of those everywhere who resist regimentation and violence. The soldier is tired of being forced to be part of a larger collective, yet does not know if he is can fulfill a yearning for an existence free of politics, the news cycle and the imperative of perpetual battle-readiness―without risking the respect of those he loves most. This is a story of an urgent personal quest to reconcile duty, expectations and individual instinct.
Since the publication in Israel, Yair Assulin, has become a consequential voice in Israel through his regular column in the liberal newspaper “Haaretz”. “The Drive” is an intense work that gives a point of view on Israeli life that is unfamiliar and surprising to non-Israelis.
The soldier/narrator is an unnamed young man doing his required service in the Israeli Defense Forces. He is tortured internally and deeply dissatisfied with his assignment in an army intelligence unit and is impelled almost to the point of self-harm. His requests for a change of assignment have been rejected by his superior officers. 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.
The story gives us 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 same time when they wish for independence, and the narrator gives a harsh indictment of what is usually regarded as one of Israel’s crowning achievements: a democratic and egalitarian national service. Beyond the idealistic propaganda that the soldier feels is 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 to be the empty rhetoric of people seeking respect”. He remembersthe lieutenant colonel in his unit from years earlier as a pitifully poor substitute teacher. He is also critical of the role of the army in what Israelis refer to as “the situation” that was brought about by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Palestinians’ resistance. The sense of futility evoked by participating in this is seen by his main assignment in his unit: laminating maps of West Bank towns.
We wonder if he is motivated by genuine feelings of disgust at a corrupt system or is he, like many people his age, reacting viscerally to hypocrites and fakes? The soldier 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. We question 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 short novel, and it is difficult to decide where is the truth here. The novel reveals facets of modern Israeli culture not usually known outside of Israel. The story also speaks to the ongoing short comings of the mental health industry. The soldier’s reaction is puzzling unless there are pre-existing mental health issues. Some will see this story as military service being primary over mental health He, himself is not a sympathetic character in that he petulant, self-absorbed, and immature. Going into a military setting is not going to be good for someone with his personality. He doesn’t do well with authority or with change and he’s completely unable to explain or express himself in a way that others can understand. Sometimes I believed him, other times I felt it was dishonest.
However, at the mental health office, the story rings true. Everyone tried to talk him out of it, (including his parents), and point out the life-long stigma attached to this choice. How he’s treated when he finally gets there is horrible.
Having served in the Israeli Defense Forces and often doing menial jobs, I can understand his displeasure. His mental conflict feels like what we are going through now. Can we take a break from the news cycle, from being perpetually battle-ready, from speaking, writing, reacting and just spend a morning reading good literature?
The soldier’s feelings of unease and the irreconcilable space between soldier and commander hit home for me more than once in this unexpected story of resistance to military life. But the most important part of this book may be in its exploration of how impossible the mentally healthy find it to participate in the journey of the mentally ill. All in all this is a powerful and compelling look inside the mind of a young man as “he struggles to find his way in life and balance the expectations of his family, romantic partner, and country with his own troubled sense of who he is.”