Flesh and Blood: David Grossman's "To the End of the Land"
By Benjamin BalintApril 27, 2011
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
ON AUGUST 12, 2006, in the waning hours of the second Lebanon war, Israeli Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, still a couple weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday, was killed — his tank struck by a Hizballah missile. Two days earlier, Uri’s father David Grossman had joined with other prominent writers in publicly demanding an end to what they judged an increasingly senseless confrontation.
During his son’s military service, Grossman, incontrovertibly among Israel’s most brilliant writers, had been feverishly at work on his latest novel, published this fall in English under the title To the End of the Land. “At the time,” Grossman said, “I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” After Uri’s death, Grossman completed the book, returning to it, he said, as “a way of fighting against the gravity of grief…. a way of choosing life.”
The book, conceived under the spell of a kind of presentiment of grief, failed as talisman and safeguard, but rapturously succeeds as art. To the End of the Land is Grossman’s most expansive, fully realized novel yet—and one that answers the promptings of usually unspoken Israeli anxieties.
Its story proceeds along simple lines. In the year 2000, Ora (the name in Hebrew means light) reluctantly takes her twenty-one year-old younger son Ofer to a military staging area. During his three years of service in the West Bank, Ofer had manned a checkpoint at the Tapuach junction, lived in a pillbox facing Jenin, patrolled the kasbah in Nablus and the alleyways of Hebron. Now he has volunteered for one last operation, presumably to root out terrorists. Ora — approaching fifty and recently separated from her husband of twenty years — experiences her son’s decision as a betrayal “of the one and only man who had always been loyal to her.” She relents, but not before questioning herself: “why is it that I’m loyal to them, to the ones sending him there … more than to my own motherhood?”
Such misgivings soon darken into foreboding. As Ora and Ofer drive up to the meeting point, Grossman writes, “she turns back to look at the snake of vehicles, and the scene is almost celebratory, excitable, a huge, colorful parade full of life: parents and brothers and girlfriends, even grandparents, bringing their loved ones to the campaign, the event of the season. In every car sits a young boy, the first fruits, a spring festival that ends with a human sacrifice.” When they arrive, Ora reflects on what the incessant conflict confiscates. She knows from watching her older son, who completed his service, that even when the boys come back, “they don’t really come back. Not like they were before. And that the boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized—lost to himself, too.” (Throughout the novel, and with considerable ingenuity, Grossman asks the reader to see Israeli military machismo through the eyes of a mother.) Ora is given to little eruptions of hysteria, and during certain outbursts — she thinks of them as her “left-wing Tourette’s attacks" — she can’t help but register bitter resentment at Israel’s political leaders: “all those people who razed her life, who keep nationalizing another one of her children every second.”
The moment Ora returns home alone, a sense of alarm washes over her; she dreads the knock on the door that notifies the families of the fallen. Peeling a potato, she fears that every gesture, even the most mundane, might be her last before they come to tell her that Ofer has been killed in the service of his country.
A crazy idea, an illogical bargain, seizes her mind: if the notifiers can’t find her, Ora tells herself, Ofer can’t get hurt. If there is no one home to receive it, the notice will not be delivered. She resolves to refuse to collaborate with the system; to become, as she puts it, the first “notification-refusenik.” This bargain with fate is the only act within her power — the only act of control available to a mother who knows she has precious little left. And so the first of the emergency regulations she imposes on herself is to leave home and to keep moving.
To accompany her on the compulsive journey that occupies the heart of Grossman’s story, Ora will take along her estranged ex-lover Avram. The two had first met as teenagers, bedraggled patients — a redheaded girl from Haifa and a solid, broad-shouldered boy from Jerusalem — in the isolation ward of a neglected hospital during the 1967 Six-Day War.
In a frantic fit, Ora summons her longtime Palestinian taxi driver Sami, and bundles Avram into the back seat.
“Drive,” she said when she sat down next to Sami.
She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, “To where the country ends.”
“For me it ended a long time ago,” he hissed.
Grossman has in other books put his characters through odysseys, often to wondrous effect: Assaf’s quixotic expedition with a lost dog in Someone to Run With; a bar mitzvah boy’s journey of self-discovery from Jerusalem to Haifa in The Zigzag Kid. But as Ora and Avram trek together through the Galilee, it becomes clear that nowhere has Grossman sustained the theme of voyaging as evocatively, nor embroidered it as richly.
The journey is first of all Ora’s way of escaping her own anxieties (“What’s important to me is not where I am but where I’m not,” she tells Avram), of fending off the sense that the world is closing in on her, of tasting the sweetness of open-air freedom. It is also her way of protecting Ofer: as long at they keep talking about him, she imagines, her son will remain unharmed.
But the trip is also Ora’s way of restoring Avram to life. As the pair hike and camp and help one another remember who they are, Grossman gradually and obliquely discloses a man whose spirit had been broken during a six-week solitary confinement in Abbasiya prison following his capture in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, a man who had suffered beatings, interrogations, rape, and torture at the hands of his Egyptian captors, all the while not knowing whether Israel still existed. When he returned, his youthful promise destroyed, Avram had felt that everything had died in him. Once exuberantly articulate, he became alienated and inexpressive, an expert in diminishing himself.
We learn, moreover, that after his return and recovery, Avram had fathered Ofer, only to be driven mad by the thought that he would have a child in the world (“something to hold him here,” Ora thinks). So mad, in fact, that he had broken off contact with mother and child both, his void creating a secretive silence at the center of the family.
Although Ora suspects that Avram’s fragile stability had been for the intervening two decades “based on a total, hermetic self-defense against Ofer,” she also desperately wants Avram to love Ofer. Her strategy — and it is Grossman’s too — is to start from a distance and then with great patience to circle ever closer to the painful heart of the matter. She reflects on “what she has always known about Avram: that he may never be able to or dare to connect himself to Ofer, but he certainly can and will connect to the story of Ofer.” As in Grossman’s novella “Her Body Knows,” the narrative yawns and pitches between past and present as Ora recounts the story of her son’s — their son’s — life. And so by means of a halting but beautiful artistry of fragmentary recollection, she tells that story to Avram, and by extension to us.
Finally, and on still another scale, the journey sets the scene for Ora’s bleak farewell to her country. Grossman allows her to confide to Avram her deep ambivalence about Israel: “This is my country, and I really don’t have anywhere else to go… . Tell me, where else could I get so annoyed about everything, and who would want me anyway. But at the same time I also know that it doesn’t really have a chance, this country. It just doesn’t.”
Like Ora and Avram’s journey, To the End of the Land is many things: a humane novel of bereavement; an extended love poem to Israel’s hills and wadis (Grossman delights in topography); a virtuoso performance of uncanny sensitivity to the inner quivers of its protagonists, evidence that Grossman has turned up the flame under his moral passion and literary genius. It could also be read as a meditation on the arbitrariness that encroaches on the life of the individual—in this case the arbitrariness of war.
But more than anything else, Grossman’s latest fiction is a kind of eloquent closing argument for the power of words—their conjuring and palliative power. It is with words that Ora seeks to restore Avram, it is with words that she coaxes Ofer to life before Avram’s eyes (and ours), and it is with words that she protects Ofer (or is she eulogizing him?). Like other storytellers, Ora contemplates the limits of words, and naturally sometimes despairs of them: “How can you even describe and revive a whole person, flesh and blood, with only words—oh God, with only words?” Yet in the end she seeks nothing less.
For David Grossman, too, words offer refuge and stave off despair. After his son’s death, Grossman remarked on what he called “maybe the only freedom a man may have against any arbitrariness: the freedom to put your tragedy into your own words.” This freedom he has now exercised with consummate and convincing skill.
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