The conscientious literature of conflict is a modernist genre: novels like All Quiet on the Western Front privilege the individual’s psychic experience of war over the distant, glorious narrative of a nation’s conquest or defeat. Familiar though the genre is, it’s unusual for such a clear-eyed example as S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh—re-released this month by Farrar Straus and Giroux in Nicholas de Lange’s and Yaacob Dweck’s English translation—to come so close on the heels of the conflict it describes.
Khirbet Khizeh, written barely a year after Israel declared independence, tells the story of one Israeli soldier’s ambivalence as he and his company raze a Palestinian village during the ’48 war. The narrator’s homeland, like Yizhar’s, is Palestine by birth: “I had never been in the Diaspora.” Even as he notes the expressions on villagers’ faces and protests that “This is a filthy war,” he carries out his orders. The novella crests to a climax when he realizes, watching villagers trudge away from their abandoned homes, that “This was what exile looked like.”
Khirbet Khizeh has been in and out of school curricula in Israel—the discussions it engenders aren’t easy. But everywhere, war is persistent and democracy seems fragile: it’s the right time for Khirbet Khizeh’s transcript of conscience to reach a broader audience in English.