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14 june 2023

Victorious is a brooding novel about the way a permanent state of war holds all the citizens of Israel in a force-field of combat mentality.

Abigail, the narrator, has made a career of studying and fostering this mentality. She's not at odds with her work; ostensibly, she's proud of how her professional contribution has aided the battle-readiness of the Israeli forces. Daughter of a prominent psychoanalyst, Abigail followed her father's legacy by becoming a therapist too, but within the military.

In that role, she studies what drives soldiers to kill, or what keeps them from following orders to kill; and how their killing (or just watching people die) traumatizes them.

Abigail has led a very complicated life. She has a son by a fellow officer who has risen through the ranks to become Chief of Staff. Said son is now in the paratroopers, ready to follow his (never-acknowledged) father into battle. Abigail is in an awkward relationship with an artist she's treated for PTSD. She has a crush on another soldier she has treated, a woman who flies a helicopter gunship. She falls into another relationship with a handsome sniper. She has a vexed relationship with her eminent, anti-military father.

We hear Abigail describe how, in her official retirement, she continues as a consultant, training young officers in the art of killing without wrecking your psyche. Her father tells her that her life's work is unconscionable. She disagrees but hasn't entirely come to peace with her mission. Israel must be defended; nobody wants to lose the next war (as the novel's title suggests). But at what cost to the culture of a community where nearly everyone serves in the defense forces?

One of the most interesting passages in Victorious comes when Abigail attends a brief reunion of adults she'd been in gifted-and-talented classes with as a child. They've all had upper-middle-class lives but none has made much of a mark on the world.

The bubble we were raised in never taught us how to fight. … The adults in our lives had led us to believe we were going to save the world, but had failed to imbue us with a smidgen of healthy selfishness or fighting spirit. (133, 136)
It isn't enough, Abigail has concluded, to be charitable and learned and tolerant. If you want to survive you have to be ready to kill somebody.

Sarid offers a lot to think about, in highly dramatic fashion. If there's a flaw in Victorious, it's that Abigail is defined almost entirely in terms of her chain of relationships to men. Her father and son (she's lost her mother young and has no daughter or sister), but also the string of men she encounters sexually. Even her connection with Noga, the gorgeous helicopter pilot, is sexually charged. Sarid is male, and it's a challenge for him to speak in the voice of a female narrator; as a problem of craft it's an intriguing device that he handles skillfully. But at times he seems to run out of ways for his heroine to connect to the world except in bed.

Sarid, Yishai. Victorious. [Menatzahat, 2020.] Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. Brooklyn: Restless, 2022.