Review: Pumpkinflowers by Matti Friedman

It was one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young soldiers–the author among them–charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that changed them forever and foreshadowed the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

“The idea was not “death before dishonor,” “no surrender,” or anything like that but rather “let’s get through this.”

Pumpkinflowers brought out the most physical and emotional reactions I’ve had ever since I started reading books. I was so awash in feelings that I tried to desperately shut down, but with every few pages, especially in part one, my eyes welled with tears that would just fall with the blink of an eye.

The traumatic war events exist in such a brief moment on the page but linger for so long in my mind, sometimes so intensely that I found myself fighting off silent tears long after the book was closed.

My eyes felt utterly exhausted and dried out by the time I reached the second part of the book. This feeling of complete mental and physical fatigue was something I’d only experience before with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Having tragic event upon tragic event upon unprecedented loss, with no warning or breather in between, left me depleted.

There is one moment that stands out, however, where the author tries to lighten the text. That moment when a soldier named Jonah stood guard in the turret:

“…and by this time Jonah was spooked, but he kept reciting the poem as he moved his head back and forth, and that was when he heard a rustle next to the tank and saw the shape scuttling on the ground, and it was real, not his imagination, and his heart stopped and started racing at the same moment, like three heart attacks all at once, and it was a plastic bag. That is a real Pumpkin story, and I wanted to tell it here because I realize that isn’t how most of my stories end, but it is how most ended in real life.”

It’s true, most stories shared in this book didn’t end on an equal note. Which brings to mind the start of part 1 “about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi…”

The author, Matti Friedman, made the clever writing decision to not introduce Avi’s last name till the very end so that we couldn’t Google it prematurely and find out his ending. As soon as the last name was revealed, though, I had chills go down my spine. Since we spent nearly half the book with Avi, I naturally grew attached to him through his thoughts shared from the letters written during his military service.

“Everything here is a kind of illusion. Opposite the place where I am sitting, on a hill, is a beautiful villa with a large garden and red shingles. It’s a pastoral scene. But if you look closely, you see the bullet holes all over the house, and you see that the garden is neglected because no one dares live there, in such dangerous proximity to the outpost.
It’s very hard for me to put my finger precisely on the feeling I have when I’m here. It’s a kind of sadness mixed with longing so deep that sometimes it’s painful. And fear, of course. It’s strange, but the fear doesn’t bother me at all. It’s part of the sadness and the longing. It’s with me all the time, but not directly, kind of sneaking up on me. That’s how it appears when you’re alone. I mean not when you’re literally alone, but when I step away for a second and think about home, about my friends, or about a love story I haven’t started yet.”

“I have the feeling that everything is disintegrating, everything is falling, everything I know is changing inexorably and all of the principles of life are collapsing. I need to find some kind of definition for how to proceed, otherwise I don’t think I’ll be able to find any kind of way forward at all.”

My tears are struggling to fall, but I feel them. And so are his words anchored to my core. This irreplaceable individual will soar my mind for days on end.

I wish I had the ability to effectively capture his presence on the page, but I don’t. There’s only this:

“There is a special language used to describe our dead soldiers, a language that makes them all sound the same, not just because you can’t say anything bad but because most were so young that there isn’t much to say at all. What they really were was potential. So in this language they are always serious students, or mischievous ones, and loving siblings, and good at basketball, and there was a funny thing they did once on a class trip, and in the army they always helped their friends. And they are, forever, “soldiers,” though most thought they were just doing that for a while before their real life resumed. It is said in their honor that they were prepared to sacrifice themselves for the rest of us, but of course they weren’t, not most—they just thought it wouldn’t happen to them, and the lucky ones weren’t given time to realize they were wrong.”

By this point, I had lost the fight and was earnestly crying. Just the mere act of writing about this makes me ache. How can someone possibly live through the emotionally scarring horrors they witnessed and be expected to “move on” and return to life as they knew it?

Like, this passage that keeps resurfacing in my mind of Avi’s father, Yossi, who served in the Fighting Pioneer Youth himself:

“There is nothing military about Yossi. He’s a smiling man despite everything, compact like Avi. One day he was back from Suez in his kitchen with Avi’s mother, Raya, and older brother, an infant at the time. The baby’s bottle thumped to the floor, and the young family contemplated Yossi flat on his stomach with his hands covering his head.”

I can hear the fall in my head.

I felt like everything that would follow afterward in the book wouldn’t be applicable to the emotional turmoil that is part one. Plus, having read it from midnight till 3am wasn’t the brightest decision.

It hit me so devastatingly hard because this read was the first time I had a personal look into the lives of IDF soldiers while in combat, coming from someone who went through what he was describing and researching.

Avi Ofner hasn’t left my mind since, and I talk about him to anyone willing to listen. My thoughts just keep going back to how one minute he’s there sharing his thoughts and fears on the page, and the next he’s slipped out of our grasp into the abyss. It was hard to wrap my frantically upset mind around; it still is.Pumpkinflowers 1-- bookspoils

Reading then about Harel, the sole survivor from his platoon and company of seventy-three was all-encompassing.

“Once, in a television interview, Harel was asked how he did it—how he went back to the army after what happened. He looked at the interviewer for a moment. Here was a chance for an expression of ideology or faith, a love of country, all of those generations of Jews looking at him, depending on him not to give up. In the fighting in Jerusalem in 1967 some of the soldiers claim they felt King David himself pushing them through the alleyways. How did Harel go back? There might have been a flicker of disdain in his eyes, but otherwise he betrayed no emotion. “On the bus,” he said. It is one of the great lines.”

On that spot-on note, I think I’ll depart my review with saying that though this was a heavy book to digest, I feel like it was a must-read for me to understand.

“May their memory be a blessing.”

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