To the End and Back Again

Books

By Ranen Omer-Sherman

Published September 15, 2010, issue of September 24, 2010.
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To the End of the Land
By David Grossman.
Alfred A. Knopf, 582 pages, $27.95

There is a moment in David Grossman’s novel, “See Under: Love,” when an Israeli son of Holocaust survivors gazes at his own sleeping child and remarks to his beaming wife: “‘It’s a good thing he can sleep through all the noise… He may have to sleep with tanks passing in the streets someday.’” Perhaps that stark utterance was the catalyst for Grossman’s latest novel, “To the End of the Land,” with its gripping meditation on love, war, suffering and rebirth. In the future, this may be regarded as Israel’s definitive anti-war novel, but that does not begin to account for its shattering poetry, nor for its incandescent empathy for characters whose euphoria and sorrows are fully revealed.

Israeli writers often portray the plight of mothers who bear the anxious knowledge of their son’s eventual conscription into the Israel Defense Forces, knowing that they must surrender their child to the state. Few have done so with such searing effect. And few translators have ever conveyed the powerful lyricism of a contemporary Hebrew novel with such unflagging acumen and aesthetic insight as does translator Jessica Cohen in her magisterial rendering.

Ora, Avram and Ilan are children hospitalized after a hepatitis outbreak amid the tumult of the Six Day War. They rapidly develop deep friendships that, years later, metamorphose into love between the men and Ora, while Avram and Ilan’s intense friendship sparks exuberant creativity. Stationed in Sinai, they collaborate on dramas, stories and poetry. In October of 1973, the men lightheartedly tease Ora into casting lots to determine who goes home to her on leave, a game that leads to horrific consequences for the one who remains. Ilan and Ora later marry and have a son, but they eventually become estranged.

After the Suez Canal fortifications are destroyed in the Yom Kippur War, Avram is captured and tortured. Here, Grossman introduces something rarely glimpsed in his fiction: grueling scenes of how men conduct themselves in wartime — their nightmares, and the suffering they endure. Avram suffers lasting damage to his body and spirit in spite of Ilan and Ora’s devotion. Unbearably alienated from his body, Avram is impotent until Ora lovingly seduces him and becomes pregnant with her second son, Ofer.

Years later, Ora is the mother of two sons, her marriage to Ilan in ruins, her elder son, Adam, coldly distant. Ilan and Adam are traveling abroad. Eager to celebrate her beloved son Ofer’s imminent release from the IDF, Ora plans a trip to the Galilee, construing it also as “a gift for herself… for her release from his army.” But at the last moment, he returns to his unit, unwilling to abandon friends called up in the latest emergency.

Anguished by terrible premonitions, Ora flees her home, surrendering to the superstitious hope that if the authorities cannot reach her, Ofer will survive.

Though his captivity has left Avram nearly incapacitated by depression and drug abuse, Ora forces her old lover to join her in her escape. Though Ora finds Avram barely sentient, she refuses to give up on him. In the Galilee, through Ora’s fierce attention, fresh air and rigorous hiking, Avram is restored to a semblance of what he once was. He awakens to her mesmerizing stories of Ofer, the son he’s never met, whose life may now be in peril.

Throughout their journey, Grossman tracks the natural world with lyrical precision; the Israel Trail itself emerges as a character, capricious and seductive, stealthily restoring the couple’s bygone intimacy, and arousing their passion once more. That magic is broken whenever they stumble across lonely monuments to soldiers who fell in battle. The bucolic landscape proves to be a vast graveyard, thwarting Ora’s frantic quest to flee history.

Grossman writes with brio about characters and landscapes alike; there are scenes of arresting beauty as Ora and Avram encounter the Galilee’s lush countryside. During their exhausting trek, they seem uncannily like diasporic wanderers: “They gave off a forlorn whiff of the persecuted, and disaster hovered over them.” Sometimes, they are threatened by the external world (including a frightening episode with feral dogs), more often by agonizing secrets that fester until they burst forth with devastating impact.

At one time or another, each of Grossman’s sharply etched characters seems stricken by Israel’s violent reality, terrified of commitment or even the ephemeral prospect of happiness. Each of their lives is shaped by the forces of war, but none is more scarred than Avram; he finds it nearly unbearable to discover that he has brought a child into such a world. Most impressive is Grossman’s rendering of Ora’s consciousness; the portrayal of her political and moral complexities is an extraordinary measure of his gifts. Ora’s hardscrabble labors to redeem Avram from the catastrophe that has overtaken him, even as she fights off her own mounting terror, is a breathtakingly heroic battle that seizes the reader as much as the wartime travails of her men.

For his part, though ignorant of his real father’s identity, Ofer eerily seems to channel Avram’s ordeal. As a child, he weeps at a Passover Seder (“he doesn’t want to be Jewish anymore”) because of the vast numbers of Arabs eager to annihilate him. Now a cynical soldier, he seems fully armored against any emotions. When he arrives home on leave, Ora rushes to embrace him, but his nationalized body and alien machismo crush her maternal spontaneity. Here is pure Grossman, contemplating the insidious ways in which the intimate spaces of domestic life become militarized zones: “Her fingers would recoil from the metal of the gun slung over his back and search for a demilitarized space on that back… she would sober up when he gave her three quick slaps on her back…With that thwack-thwack-thwack he would both embrace her and mark the boundaries.” The verisimilitude here is quietly damning, indelibly capturing the “situation” as it impacts ordinary life.

Another story line, insistently interwoven, is that of Ora’s ever-shifting relation with Sami, the charmingly earthy Arab driver who has served her family for years (his “Arabesque Hebrew undermines the… greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs”). Each has steadfastly refused to allow the “situation” to threaten their affectionate bond, but now Sami resents Ora’s imperious demands, which include the demand that he ferry Ofer to his base. Sami compels her to visit an underground clinic that covertly treats Palestinian workers smuggled in from the territories, an encounter that transforms her perception of her society. In one memorable scene, even the car radio becomes a ludicrous ideological battleground as Sami recoils from the rhetoric of Galei Tzahal, the military station, and Ora shudders at the combative music of an Arabic station. Without ever becoming the reductive ciphers a less accomplished writer might render, Sami and Ora, through their fragile relationship, urgently mirror Israel’s deteriorating relations with its Arab citizens.

By now, many readers know that the novelist himself indulged in an Ora-like fantasy; he dared hope that writing “To the End of the Land” (more aptly titled “A Woman Flees from a Message” in Hebrew) would protect Uri, his youngest son. The manuscript was nearly complete when Uri was killed in the Second Lebanon War, shortly after Grossman protested its escalation. The novel exposes the intimate realm of Grossman’s own raw loss. Most important, this transformative work marks the zenith of years spent scrutinizing the profound difference between survival and living.

Grossman delivers achingly beautiful observations on the strange gravitational forces binding us to one another, the strong bodily connections between lovers, and between parents and children. Rarely has the Janus nature of Israel — both nurturing womb and militarized “land that devours its inhabitants” — been so stunningly realized. This haunting duality resonates in his book both metaphorically and literally, until the final wrenching scene where two figures curl in a primal embrace, pressed tightly against the earth. Bold and uncompromising, this great emotional rush of a story sings and cries, exults and mourns. Unforgettably, it confirms Grossman as one of the most morally imaginative writers alive.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is co-editor of the forthcoming “War and Narrative in Israeli Society and Culture.” He is a professor of English and Jewish studies at the University of Miami.


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