The Lost Pilot’s Wife

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This is the story, told in two echoing voices, of an Israeli pilot whose plane was shot down in Lebanon and of his wife who was left alone.

Will the pilot be rescued by the all knowing commando unit? Will his wife ever find the answer to the question tormenting her for years? Or perhaps a person can find his liberty as a hiding refugee, just a few miles across the border from where he was born?

A fast-paced novel, weaving together a touching love story with breathtaking suspense.

 

 

Reviews

 

From Y-Net ( 5/18/2011)

by Yotam Schwimmer

http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4069219,00.html

 

Tsur Shezaf is, first and foremost, a traveler. A journeyer. His new novel, the seventh, uniquely blends a journey from Israel to Lebanon with an exploration of the two countries. Unlike his travel books, Shezaf charges the space in which the characters roam with lyricism, symbolism and mystical meanings.

The geographical expanse becomes fertile ground for illustrating the soul’s depths. Every plant, every plot of land, and every landscape are depicted with great esteem for their medical or purposeful significance for the characters, the emotions and memories they evoke, and their concrete and dramatic effect on the situation. The plot of The Lost Pilot’s Wife moves between these different layers, and Shezaf skips among them with ease and sensitivity.

The novel is told in a double voice: by Ruth, the wife of the lost pilot, who—we are told at the beginning of the book—has finally met her missing husband, whose plane went down in Lebanon and whose fate was unknown for decades. After their encounter, Ruth begins to write the story of her ordeal from the moment he disappeared. The second voice is that of Assaf, the pilot, who writes a letter intended for Ruth, in which he recounts his experiences since that fateful day when he parachuted down onto Lebanese soil. Through his story, we learn why he did not return to his wife or contact her for all these years.

The two voices are intertwined, turning our viewpoint back to the past. The reenactment of past events functions as a sort of effort to repair. The narrators tell their stories primarily in order to impose order upon their souls, and only secondarily in order to clarify their realities. Ruth often wonders what happened to Assaf, and her story is one of a private coping, of personal grief and a life stolen. Assaf, conversely, devotes almost no attention to Ruth in his story, although she is the recipient of the letter. He focuses to the extreme on “the death of Assaf and the birth of Yusuf,” the new identity he adopted—mostly unwillingly—in Lebanon.

 

This matter is critical, since the novel presents two completely different narratives. While Ruth’s story depicts Assaf as a present-absentee with great influence, Assaf’s stresses the absence of Ruth. Ruth’s own account occupies the national sphere no less than the personal. Her experience is not only that of a woman who has lost her beloved, but also of a citizen in face of the political machine.

[…]

The Lost Pilot’s Wife is not a travel book, yet the geography has great significance. There is an expectation that the arena of Tel-Aviv and northern Israel, though not always peaceful, would be safer than that of Lebanon. But this is not the case. Lebanon, with its mountains and flora, and its factious populations, emerges as a fertile expanse, and it is there, ironically, that Assaf finds salvation from death, and is able to resurrect himself (in a scene we will not spoil) and build a new life.

This conflicted and dangerous place is depicted as almost mystical, where things happen that could not occur anywhere else. Israel, on the other hand, with its problematic government, its political frauds, and complex imagery, is portrayed as a stifling space that does not lead to resurrection, to the foundation of new life, or to truth.

The discrepancies between the two places, much like the two narratives, emphasize the prosaic superiority of Assaf’s story as compared with Ruth’s. The geography is charged with emotional significance in both, but it is far more prominent in the context of Assaf’s location in Lebanon, where he adopts a new identity: a village doctor who specializes in botany.

The Tel-Aviv concrete and drab government offices are analogous to Ruth’s condition, but in terms of the prose itself, the Lebanese expanses allow the author to expand the borders of literary expression, with impassioned descriptions of flora and landscapes, which he connects impressively with Assaf’s psychological processes. While Ruth’s emotional reversals are depicted concisely, with local dryness and fairly simple language, Assaf’s experience, starting with his first fall onto Lebanese soil and all the way through his establishment as a respected doctor, moves along the axis between physical geography and the map of human emotions.

 

From Haaretz (6/1/2011)

by Amichai Shalev

http://www.haaretz.co.il/literature/1.1175841

The current Mediterranean state is brimming with big dramas on a regular basis. To write a literary work out of these big dramas is no small feat, and so authors frequently tend to grasp at some minor element, a specific angle through which they try to say something big and significant about wars, conflicts and so forth.

In The Lost Pilot’s Wife, Tsur Shezaf has chosen to tell a big, dramatic, familiar story, and he does so in a decidedly respectable way. The novel recounts the story of a pilot in the Israeli Air Force whose plane is shot down and who is taken captive, and in parallel, the story of his wife, Ruth, who remains alone with a baby and with one big question that no one can answer: is he alive? The story has many similarities to Ron Arad’s life, but it is not necessarily his story, because Arad himself is mentioned as part of the background reality.

The Lost Pilot’s Wife can be viewed, first of all, as the story of an area with an enchanting, unique landscape—war-torn Lebanon—which Shezaf describes so wonderfully: the bounteous mountains and hilltops, the unique medicinal plants, the bounty of opium and hashish, and the unrealized potential of the land. This enchanting region is ravaged by governments, organizations and soldiers, embroiled in their big and small conflicts, which leave it bleeding, injured, contaminated, yet still not completely destroyed.

There is something in Shezaf’s descriptions of the landscape, and in his phenomenal grasp of local geography and botany, which serves as an incredible, even magical ground for a major story, politically and militarily speaking. On this ground, Shezaf creates a nerve-wracking story. This is not a classic thriller, full of manipulations imposed upon the reader with varying degrees of success (fans of the genre are aware of them and accept them). Rather, the tension stems mainly from the uncertainty. Readers never have any idea what the next stage in this story is, and there is a constant sense that almost anything could happen. Shezaf navigates the plot with an impressively masterful hand, and takes it to places with the potential for melodrama, without allowing the melodramatic concoction to boil over. The final scene is an impressive literary episode of restraint and precision.

Shezaf positions his story within a bubbling stream of political lava, but what stands out is that he does not take a judgmental stance: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story, just as there probably aren’t in reality. Closed minds and Machiavellianism can be found on either side, and they are embodied in the figures of prime ministers and Mossad heads on the Israeli side, and in certain characters who appear along the Lebanese-Syrian travels of Assaf Vardi, the kidnapped pilot. In contrast, compassionate and wonderful people can also be found on either side, including the new Mossad head, a surprising character with decisive influence on the larger story, and Abu Shams, a Lebanese doctor who gives Vardi a new life that appears to be no worse than his first existence as a typical salt-of-the-earth pilot.

[…]

Assaf Vardi’s story, and mainly his decisions, make him a special and unconventional character. He starts off as a classic fighter pilot straight out of “Top Gun.” But as the pages advance and the plot proceeds, he evolves into something completely different—a character with impressive depths, who enters deep into our hearts.

Xargol Books

 

The Lost Pilot’s Wife / Tsur Shezaf

translated by Jessica Cohen

 

 

4. The First Thing

 

The first thing I remember was the silence. After the airplane roar, the missile strike, the flames, and my shouts over the internal radio to Ami, behind me in the navigator’s seat, that we’d been hit and had to eject, there was one second of total silence. In a Phantom, the navigator ejects first, to avoid being burned by the pilot’s ejection seat rockets. As soon as I hit the button, the canopy flew up and I was struck by a massively loud, deafening gale. After the strike, I had just had time to notify the airbase control tower that we were going down and give them our location. I aimed the Phantom toward the sea. We weren’t flying very high, and unlike the French aircrafts it replaced, the Phantom is a massive hunk of metal completely unable to glide. When its huge engines stop working, it simply falls. A technological marvel and an aviary ( Aerial) scarecrow.

The Phantom was ablaze when I ejected. It was a hypnotic sight. I could feel the heat slowly advancing toward the cockpit. I looked at the left wing and saw the flames crawling across, then I flipped the little dome off the stick and pressed the ejection button. The rockets lit up thunderously and flung me out. From the moment of impact until I disconnected from the ejection seat as it somersaulted to the ground, no more than forty seconds passed. And all that time, despite the yelling and the knowledge that we were going down in Lebanese territory, I worked just as I had been taught in flight school, doing exactly what I had learned in my years of squadron practice and my days in battle. Smoke, fire, the canopy flying in the deafening wind, the rocket explosion that delivered a massive kick to my rear-end, the beginning of the fall, the opening of the parachute that stopped me mid-air with a snap, and the disconnection from my seat, at which point the sky sucked me back up.

When the parachute opened, I paused in the sky and the silence ended instantly. I could hear gunfire below. All the hilltops of Lebanon were shooting at me. To my right, when I turned my head, I saw Ami’s parachute going down behind a silvery-green olive grove. As I neared the ground, the shouting and gunfire grew clearer. A huge noise and fiery flames rose up from the site where the Phantom had landed, and it disappeared almost immediately from my line of sight as I kept plunging toward the rocky terrain. Then I hit the ground, rolled over, and lay among the rocks and scrub.

As I fell and rolled, I could see buttercups. Springtime. I was struck by a fragmentary thought: the equinox. As if my mind was reminding me that there was a reason to lift my head up and think about the bigger picture, though it was growing smaller. I had fallen to the ground at neither day nor night, neither winter nor summer, but in the time that separates them, the season between Purim and Passover, a month before the birth of my first son. I had lived the first round of life up until that day. And then my second life began. Except that I didn’t know it yet. All I knew was that I had a half-hour window to hide and perhaps escape, then lie low waiting for the 669 medevac helicopter while the Cobras hovered overhead and gave cover.

I could hear bursts of fire, people’s voices, and the Cobras. I could also hear the dim thunder of my number two, who kept circling above me, directing the Cobras. All I had to do was hide and hang in there for half an hour. I knew the 669 would reach me soon. I couldn’t see Ami. He had ejected first and reached the ground before me.

I crawled behind a rock. My leg hurt but I wasn’t paying attention to that. I was deep in the excitement of the missile hit, the ejection and the fight for my life. I had to get away. Not be taken hostage. There were a few pine trees not far away, and an olive grove beneath the hill. It was afternoon. We had entered Lebanon from the direction of the setting sun, to blind the gunners and the anti-aircraft missile launchers. I debated for a moment whether to try and get to the hilltop so the medevac could get to me easily, or to the grove so I could hide. I put my head up and looked around. I heard voices from the grove and continuous machine-gun fire. The helicopters and the Phantom were doing flyovers overhead. Then, from the hill next to me, I saw the Cobra lift up and fly on toward the sea, which glistened in the setting sunlight. I dug through my pocket for the radio beacon to send out distress signals, but then the first bullets landed (hit) next to me. I put my head down and crouched behind the rock.

The pine trees became my only option. I decided to sprint over there as soon as I could. The gunfire stopped for a minute and I got up but immediately fell. Then shots started again. Someone had seen me and was firing long bursts, but that’s not why I fell. I looked at my left leg and saw a bloodstain spreading. Something must have broken when I parachuted down. My pants leg was ripped.

Then I did what I should have done at first. I examined myself. Everything was all right except the leg. There wasn’t going to be any running or any escaping. Shit. I could hear the voices from the olive grove getting closer. Now the setting sun was working in my favor.

I limped along quickly until the pain knocked me down, then dragged myself behind some tall green Spanish Broom. Even through the pain and the commotion and the gunshots, I could smell the big yellow flowers that caressed my face, and in a brief lull amid all the noise and fear and adrenaline, I spotted an insect inserting its proboscis deep into the flower while its belly danced on the lower petal, which looks like a long sleeve but is in fact a pedal that makes the stamen burst open and a cloud of dusk stick to the insect’s abdominal hairs. What are you looking at? I asked myself, and searched for my gun. It wasn’t there. It must have flown off when I crashed on the rocks. I tried to huddle behind the green bush, where the insects kept buzzing around as if the sun weren’t setting. The Spanish Broom was growing amid a cluster of poterium. Would the sun set before I was captured? I was too close to the parachute, which covered the low-growing plants. Maybe they wouldn’t see the green military fabric, designed to be camouflaged in the landscape. Just let night come. I had the radio beacon. I checked to make sure it was working and heard the helicopters getting closer and the Hellfires spraying the whole area, trying to prevent their pursuers from getting to me. It seemed as though every hilltop and valley in Lebanon was firing at the helicopters and the Phantoms, which went down for low flyovers to scare the enemy and scan the area. In the dying light, they were searching for me, trying to pick up signals so they could send in the medevac helicopter.

They got to me before the sun set. I could hear the Cobras flying low despite the constant fire, and the Phantoms searching for the beacon’s signals. I decided that when they got within earshot, I would turn off the radio and hide it, so it wouldn’t draw the 669 helicopter into an ambush. When I heard voices from beyond the bushes in the dusk, I turned the device off and slowly buried it in the Spiny Broom foliage covering the scrub. Then I put my head down and tried to vanish.

The voices came closer. I hunched down, but one of them saw me and pounced. He landed on my broken leg and the pain pinned me to the ground. I couldn’t move. And then they were standing over me, three men, firing long bursts of celebratory shots in the air. This is what my death will look like, I thought. But the pain was so intense that I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my leg. They motioned for me to stand, pulled me up, and I fell. They realized I was wounded.

I knew I was dead. The knowledge penetrated through the pain and I wondered if they would shoot me then and there or take me to the village first. As I awaited my death, I lived a moment that was neither life nor death, and therefore contained no fear. I looked at them: green webbing, Palladiums boots, Kalashnikovs. My life did not flash before my eyes. I had no time for such complex processes. I only thought, with relative clarity, about the fact that I was dead or would be soon, and I bade farewell to my life and to you and to my unborn child. There was so much I had not had time to do, but had managed to become a pilot, to fly among the stars, and to fall in love with you. I looked up at the sky and the line of hills, and above the horizon I saw Venus emerging. All of the planet’s names flew through my mind—Aphrodite, Morning Star, Evening Star, Bright Queen of the Sky. Beyond the commotion and the certain death and the end of life, I saw a promise in the glowing planet. And what was suddenly illuminated in my mind was Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, the shining star at the head of Canis Major. I recalled that the ancient Egyptians used to reckon their calendar according to the day when Sirius emerges a moment before sunrise, announcing the summer solstice and the start of flood season in the Nile.

Astronomical trivia came rushing in. In the squadron they call it attention distribution—the capacity to contend with more than one objective at the same time and to simultaneously analyze vastly different data. And these were the data I was facing: I was about to be shot in Lebanon with no ability to defend myself, with only the sky above me, containing a shining star that represented all the stars. For me, at that moment, the sky bore the significance it has for seafarers: a place to fly into, with hidden depths, on the border of darkness at the edge of the atmosphere, in a place where the heavens lose the pale-blue translucence of water vapors, on the outer edge of Earth’s gravity. The place where I would, if I had any push left in my engines, fly up to and depart from into space. What I did not know at that moment, the moment the Evening Star broke through the sky, was that my life in the skies was over and my life on Earth had begun.