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The Activist Novelist


ISSUE:  Fall 2010

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman. Knopf, $26.95

The cover of the book, 'To the End of the Land,' which features a close up of flowers in a field'

In thirteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the groundbreaking The Yellow Wind, an investigation into Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories that arguably predicted the First Intifada, the celebrated Israeli writer David Grossman has employed his emotional intelligence and formidable imagination to reach out to the Other, those marginalized by society—whether it’s Holocaust survivors, street children, illegal Palestinian laborers, or the victims and perpetrators of the occupation. Pursuit of such lines of inquiry in a deeply fractious political environment, particularly with Grossman’s characteristic candor and empathy, practically begs for controversy and censure; Grossman has endured his share; yet, his books are also frequent bestsellers in Israel and Europe, transcending political divides. A man of the left who has refused to officially join Peace Now, the land-for-peace organization co-founded by writer Amos Oz, Grossman remains an independent thinker: he is interested in neither equivocation nor idealization—two common features of the political activist—but rather a bald look at reality. In the essay “The Desire to Be Gisella,” collected in his 2008 book of nonfiction, Writing in the Dark, he states, “when we write about the Other, about any Other, we aspire to reach the knowledge that encompasses the unloved parts in him as well, the parts that deter and threaten.”

To open oneself to the Other requires self-questioning, bravely sublimating one’s own fears to a sense of curiosity, removing “layers of cataract from the soul” in order to escape a “fatalistic, defeatist frame of mind” in which every outcome is predetermined, every enemy catalogued, every act of violence guaranteed to beget a brutal response. For Grossman, the stakes could not be higher. As he told the Guardian, he writes to “reclaim things that have been confiscated [including] the right to be a human being in a situation that tries to obliterate my human qualities.”

Given such earnest outpourings, one might not be surprised to hear that Grossman’s writing, at its best, often features soaring expressions of emotion; yet, the risk of such a style is sententiousness and melodrama. Avoiding these pitfalls requires care, but Grossman usually succeeds, aided by an ability to immerse his readers in vividly drawn worlds and a sensitive handling of his subjects. He is also unafraid of experimentation—his masterpiece, See Under: Love, which explores the legacy of the Holocaust and the reticence of many Israelis to discuss it in the state’s early years, as well as the tragic life of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, tells part of its phantasmagoric story in the form of encyclopedia entries. (For its fearless criticism and authoritative reporting, The Yellow Wind also deserves the masterpiece laurel, though of the nonfictional kind. Reading it today, one realizes, dispiritingly, how little has changed, and how precise and incisive are Grossman’s perceptions.)

In a place where political allegiances are patent and ossified, where militarist thinking is ascendant, Grossman’s work rebels against the status quo. Undaunted, he argues that empathy and imagination—to imagine what peace would look like, how it could repair Israel’s fissured society, and to see who the Other truly is behind the euphemistic news reports and alarmist military briefings—have a place in political and literary dialogue. With his latest novel, To the End of the Land, Grossman casts his iconoclastic gaze at people like himself, educated, liberal, middle-class, secular Israelis, and asks how “the situation” has changed them, if they’ve been made strangers to one another. In essence, he is asking whether he and his peers have been made into some kind of Other, a perversion of their youthful expectations, and what the costs of such a transformation might be.

The novel’s protagonist is Ora, a woman of about fifty, living in Israel in the year 2000, whose son Ofer, after having been released from his compulsory military service, has reenlisted in order to participate in an unspecified operation in the occupied West Bank. Ora’s relief that Ofer is done with his service is suddenly shunted into profound terror, a near certainty that he will be killed in this new operation. She has no one to comfort her: her husband, Ilan, has separated from her, and he has taken their other son, Adam, on a trip to South America.

With the superstitious logic that comforts those in distress, Ora decides that she can protect Ofer, who reports for duty immediately after reenlisting, by leaving her house and turning off her phone. The death-notification team will be unable to contact her, so Ofer will not be hurt. (The argument is circuitous and fantastical, but we are not meant to dwell on it; it is more therapeutic than logical.) Having planned a hike in the Galilee with Ofer before his reenlistment, Ora grabs their backpacks and drags her immensely troubled friend Avram along. Avram is, in fact, Ofer’s real father, though only Avram, Ora, and Ilan know this. Avram, who was taken prisoner by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War and brutally tortured for months, has never seen his son, and has rarely seen Ora or Ilan in the years since Ofer’s birth. Instead, he has floated between menial restaurant jobs, becoming dependent on sleeping pills and tangled in a relationship with the much younger Neta, a free-spirited gypsy-type prone to unexplained disappearances.

And so they walk, Ora and Avram, after having been dropped off by a taxi in the north of the country, near the Lebanese border. Ora is not always sure what they are walking towards, but she is persistent in her belief that she can somehow keep Ofer safe by staying in motion. In the process, she begins talking to Avram about the son he doesn’t know, delineating Ofer’s life, unfurling her own complicated history (culminating in her recent separation from Ilan), and trying to rekindle some of the spark in Avram that had made him a brilliant, loquacious, almost annoyingly vibrant presence in his youth.

Avram typifies what Grossman, in Writing in the Dark, calls a “terrible tendency to view life as latent death.” He is clearly and understandably a shell of a man. Unfeeling toward anyone or anything, practically mute, Avram fixates on the Greek philosopher Thales, “who said there was no difference between life and death.” Grossman titled another of his volumes of nonfiction Death As a Way of Life, and this novel serves as a fictional corollary, illustrating that the price of a dependence on violence, of surviving by force, is living amidst death and accepting it as customary. The very fact of this acceptance is, of course, a great tragedy: no one should have to live like this, Israeli or Palestinian. And yet they do (those who don’t join the estimated one million Israelis living abroad).

In Grossman’s Israel, the fear of death is everywhere, provoking a hypervigilance: “every time the bus stopped at a station, they all sat up a little straighter and stared at the people getting on.” Death has become routine, a part of everyday life. Ofer tells his mother that when photos are taken before a military campaign “the guys made sure to keep their heads a certain distance from each other, so there’d be room for the red circle that would mark them later, in the newspaper.”

As Ora prepares to tell Avram the story of her son, she thinks about “all the minutiae, the thousands of moments and acts from which you raise a child, gather him into a person,” and decides that “that won’t really interest” Avram. She’s right by half—it takes some time for Avram to respond to Ora, though eventually he’s insatiable for details about Ofer—but her musings pinpoint a major problem with Grossman’s novel: at nearly six-hundred pages, it is far too long, buttonholed by rambling passages and half-constructed scenes. After a promising first section that includes a dissection of Ora’s vexed friendship with an Arab-Israeli cab driver, Grossman spends a couple of hundred pages detailing the early years of Ora’s marriage to Ilan, the birth of their older son Adam, Ilan’s initial abandonment of and eventual return to the family, and much else. Some of this material is later rehashed, and we are privy to every prevarication and bit of self-questioning and doubt consuming Ora. The result is a circling, repetitious, and, yes, minutiae-laden account that too often skips between present action and abbreviated flashbacks. The story can appear drama-less and overmediated: frequent interruptions and perspective switches remind us that we are experiencing someone telling a flashback, as a story, as dialogue to another person. One wishes that Grossman would just tell it straight. Moreover, the narrative lingers too much on the dull early years of Ofer and Adam—there’s a reason that little serious fiction is written about toddlers. (The rare captivating scene of Ofer’s early childhood occurs when six-year-old Ofer asks his mother who their enemies are, and Ora struggles to explain. This moment feels real, necessary, and particular to Israel and to the concerns of this novel.)

Yet after this frustratingly dry early-to-middle section, there are impressive rewards. Portions of To the End of the Land are terribly powerful. A later section on the Yom Kippur War captures with a fiery majesty the catastrophic nature of that conflict. Grossman also describes a wrenching, and occasionally humorous, scene in which a severely wounded Avram, broadcasting over a military radio in a mix of baroque language and angry curses, hectors Ilan and his fellow soldiers for not rescuing him. Grossman was a longtime radio actor and writer of radio plays, as well as a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, and his radio experience helps to craft a monologue that oscillates between despair and the blackest of humor.

The book’s imaginative prologue, set in a Jerusalem hospital during the Six-Day War, is strong as well. Here Ora, Avram, and Ilan, all about sixteen years old and quite ill, are confined to the hospital’s TB ward, which is under a blackout and staffed by only one nurse. There the three meet. Ora will become lover to both men, wife to one, mother to children of both, and Avram and Ilan will be best friends, platonic soul mates, before Avram’s Egyptian trauma makes friendships impossible. During this section, told mostly in unattributed dialogue, Grossman deftly plays with perception, as the teens battle feverish hallucinations and Avram courts Ora, even though he senses, with troubling foresight, that she will eventually throw him off for the more classically handsome Ilan.

The prologue inaugurates us into the sense that will haunt these characters in the coming years, and that haunts many Israelis today: that the apocalyptic panic engendered by the wars of 1967 and 1973 still lingers, in a pervasive sense of existential unease. When he wakes up in a hospital after returning from Egypt, a half-conscious Avram asks, “Is there an Israel?” More than twenty-five years later, near the end of her hike with Avram, Ora says, “I also know that it doesn’t really have a chance, this country.”

The insecurity surrounding his country’s future, the worry that his people will waste the promise of the Promised Land, represents one of Grossman’s recurrent concerns. In Writing in the Dark, he worries about “the mere possibility of there being a future” (the italics are Grossman’s) for the state of Israel. This fear is not exclusive to hardliners who believe that the year is 1938 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler. For those accustomed to living in the shadow of constant war, who must raise children “based on the daily fear that they may be taken from us at any moment” in a terrorist attack, to put much stock in the future can seem indulgent, even reckless. Grossman writes that to “think about Israel in such future-tense terms, I immediately feel a pang of guilt … as if I had allowed myself too large a dose of future.”

Grossman imbues Ora with this same pain. Her decision to hike out in nature, away from cities, military bases, cars, television, and the clamorous emblems of Israeli society, serves to keep Israel in stasis, its problems, its very existence, in abeyance, apart from her and out of view. Like her author, Ora finds comfort in storytelling, in talking to Avram and writing in a journal, though Grossman would wish us to see Ora’s actions as spontaneous, the instinctual response to a crisis of the soul. Yet it is not coincidental that Avram, too, was once a writer, filling notebooks with ideas to ease his boredom and fear in the Sinai, and that after his capture, he abandoned writing. To forsake stories, that great bulwark against the pains of the past and the fears of the future, is to give up on one’s self, and Avram is long broken.

 

The novel’s arid middle section can be seen as a consequence of Ora’s desire to hold the world at bay. Turning away from the present, ignoring newspaper headlines and phone calls, begging all strangers encountered along her hike not to speak of the news, she is in a process of negation, her refuge the dense trivialities of the past. But once her story progresses into her children’s teenage years, and we see Avram awaking from his decades-long torpor, the novel regains the energy of its opening. The issues that Ora has closed herself off to inexorably return, demanding consideration, and we readers are the beneficiaries. In other words, we have genuine drama, at the very least in the form of potent flashbacks, which Grossman allows to play out in sustained scenes, rather than interrupting them with Ora and Avram’s dialogue. It is here that some of Grossman’s political fascinations are filtered through the useful sieve of fiction.

It may have taken too long, but Grossman and Ora can no longer ignore the reality of the environment in which they live. Language infiltrates; Grossman’s characters can’t help but use, sometimes in jest, loaded words like the situation, collaborate, deterrence, and intifada. The hiking trails of northern Israel are also dotted with small monuments—benches, plaques, trees, lookout points—dedicated to fallen soldiers. One such encounter reminds Ora that Ofer had wanted, if he died in combat, to be memorialized by a bench near a venue where his band played. “There’s no more room for all the dead,” she tells Avram.

Grossman is also concerned with what mandatory military service does to families. Ora, her marriage always on a precipice, her sons sharing an intimacy she’s unable to infiltrate, is an outsider in her home. Her sons’ matriculation into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) makes it worse. At first she supports their military service; at the birth of Ofer, she even said, “Here you are, my darling, I’ve made another soldier for the IDF.” But Ora eventually despises the state for having “nationalized” her family and made them strangers to her. Ofer returns every few weeks on leave, exhausted, his hair shorn. Ilan and Ora precariously balance parental love—they cook Ofer immense meals of his favorite foods—with the wary respect accorded to a soldier, as well as a desire to get inside his head, probing him with questions about his service that he flicks away. They could not understand what he’s seen in the Territories.

At a family dinner one night, Ofer and Adam laugh about a story in which, at a parents’ day event to mark the end of training, one young soldier approached an unfamiliar couple, reached out as if to hug them, and said, “Mom, Dad, don’t you recognize me?” Ofer and Adam find the story hilarious, but the macabre subtext—that these young men could return home unrecognizable to their loved ones—disturbs Ora. The humor is as shocking to her as Ofer’s shaved head; his Arabic that extends only so far as phrases like “Who’s there?” and “Stop or I’ll shoot”; and his possible participation in a disturbing incident during an IDF operation in Hebron.

In an essay in Writing in the Dark, Grossman worries that despite Israel’s immense security apparatus and military might, the country risks “becoming like a suit of armor that no longer contains a knight, no longer contains a human.” To the End of the Land is the novelization of these fears. Ora doesn’t mind that Ofer has no interest in politics, but the unquestioning élan with which he approaches his service divides the family. When talking about a suicide bomber who may have passed through Ofer’s roadblock when he was on duty, Ilan says that he’s glad that the bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv, rather than at the roadblock. Ofer blurts out, “But Dad, that’s my job! I stand there precisely so they’ll blow themselves up on me and not in Tel Aviv.” The comment lodges itself deep in Ora, and threatens to drive her mad.

In another essay, Grossman recounts the story of a couple interviewed on TV the night before their wedding. When asked how many children they planned to have, the bride said “three,”—“so that if one is killed, we will still have two.” Grossman calls it the “saddest expression” he’s heard of “the unbearable lightness of death,” “the daily availability of death.” It is the quintessence of “death as a way of life.” This essay, written in 2004, doesn’t contain the following coda: the author’s son Uri was killed while serving in the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War. Uri was one of three Grossman children—a fact that, in light of the bride’s comment, makes a mockery of irony.

In an author’s note, David Grossman states that he began To the End of the Land while his oldest son, Yonatan, was completing his military service. When Uri entered the IDF, Grossman writes, “I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” He completed most of a draft before Uri’s death, and says that his son’s death added “the echo of reality in which the final draft was written.” It’s a modest statement for someone normally outspoken, but Grossman has been reluctant to bring his son’s death into the public arena, claiming, at a memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 2005, that his family’s tragedy “does not give [him] special privileges in the public discourse.” That may be true, but he is better equipped than most to speak about such tragedy, to craft art out of this grievous intersection of the personal and political. And while his recent nonfiction shows that his moral compass remains well attuned, one must wonder if, in To the End of the Land, he has landed a subject too difficult to face directly. Like Ora, who protects herself by digging into the past, Grossman’s narrative tends to shade its eyes, doling out its story in half-scenes, capsules of flashback, and chopped-up dialogue. The novel gives light to important corners of Israeli life, as well as to the formative wars of 1967 and 1973, but in the end, it wanders off into the wilds, sure neither of its destination nor how it might get there.

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