“The Drive” by Yair Assulin— To the Breaking Point

Assulin, Yair. “The Drive”, New Vessel Press; Reprint edition, 2020.

To The Breaking Point

Amos Lassen

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.”

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