Love and War

Rarely has a major work of fiction arrived carrying such baggage. During the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, while he was working on the original Hebrew version of To the End of the Land, David Grossman learned that his younger son Uri had just been killed in battle along with the rest of his tank crew. In a laconic endnote, Grossman relates that after the shiva he returned to his manuscript. “What changed, above all,” he writes, “was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.” This echo made it difficult, if not impossible, for Israeli readers, already so embroiled in life-and-death matters, to prise fiction apart from life.

Grossman is, after all, not just a distinguished writer of fiction but a public intellectual who joins his older colleagues Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua as a writer on the Left whose pronouncements have even higher visibility in Europe and America than at home. Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman are, to be sure, brilliant and morally passionate polemicists, but their statements would garner far less attention if issued by figures who were not also preeminent novelists. Writing great fiction confers its rewards, and it is a confirmation of the health of Israeli literature that in the case of each of these three writers their best novels are often more complex and subtle than their public statements.

David Grossman at  Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, 2007. (Photo © Kobi Kalmanovitz.)

Since it appeared two years ago, the novel has been read by Israelis with a ferocious emotional intensity that further blurs the boundaries between the public and the private. Set against the background of military call-ups, this is a novel whose very subject is bereavement and the anticipation of loss. For the members of any family whose sons serve in combat units, as well as for girlfriends and wives, there can be no more fraught territory than this, and when it is explored by the workings of the best fiction, it is little wonder that the experience of reading becomes an act of catharsis.

The appearance of To the End of the Land in English, crisply translated by Jessica Cohen, poses the question of whether the novel’s elemental power will have a comparable impact on American readers. Much has been written recently about the accelerated drift of young American Jews away from Israel. Even as the reasons for the attenuation of the bond are hotly debated—is it Israel or intermarriage?—the disturbing fact of distance and disaffection is conceded by all. Yet even among those American Jews for whom the founding of the state and its subsequent struggles and achievements are matters of deep and abiding concern, there remains an inescapable point of difference. With distinguished exceptions, American Jews, together with the educated and professional classes in America generally, do not send their children to fight for their country. So no matter how passionately, from either the Left or the Right, we identify with the fate of Israel, there remains a divide we cannot cross. We simply don’t know what it is like to live through prolonged periods in which our children are exposed to violence and death.

This is surely knowledge that no one should have to acquire; yet it remains the daily price Israeli families pay for the existence of Israel. One of the great contributions of To the End of the Land is to grant those of us who stand on the other side of this line an intimation of what that reality is like. But if this makes reading the novel sound like grim moral homework, the opposite turns out to be the case. To the End of the Land is a breathtaking evocation of the love and solidarity and plain joy of family bonds. It is precisely because Grossman invests his considerable novelistic gifts in realizing the antic goodness at the heart of all decent families that he can take us into more harrowing territory.

At first glance, the premise of the novel can seem hysterical, even outrageous. Ora is a woman approaching fifty whose younger son Ofer volunteers for a military operation near the Lebanon boarder just when his three-year compulsory service has been completed. She has lived with the anxiety of her two sons’ exposure to danger for six consecutive years, and now she is consumed by the premonition that this time something terrible will happen. She dreads the knock on door when the army’s “notifiers” come to deliver the terrible news. In an act that is a combination of denial, desperation, and superstition, Ora flees her home. This is underscored by the novel’s Hebrew title: Ishah borahat mi-besorah, a woman flees from the news; besorah is a fateful announcement. She had planned to spend a week with Ofer backpacking in the Galilee to celebrate his release from the army. Now she collects Avram, her longtime friend and former lover, and sets out for the North, leaving her cell phone behind and avoiding newspapers and radio broadcasts. In doing so, Ora cuts herself off fromthe Situation” (ha-matsav), the military and political conditions under which Israeli citizens lead their lives, as well as from her soldier son at a time when he most needs his mother’s anchoring presence at home. Neither her estranged husband Ilan nor her older son Adam is available either; they are on a trip together to the Galapagos Islands, making their own escape from the Situation.

But what may have been merely impulsive denial and magical thinking turns into a mission of high purpose. Ora uses the fortnight of their walk to unwind and reexamine the tangled skein of her relations with Ilan and Avram and, through a complex and ambitious act of narrative recollection, to mitigate the losses they have each suffered. The story of the relationship among the three is tangled indeed. They first met as sixteen-year-olds during the Six-Day War when they were confined together in a hospital isolation ward. In the grip of high fever from unnamed illnesses and slipping in and out of consciousness, they are cut off from the rest of Israel and, exposed only to the taunting Egyptian radio broadcasts played by their Arab nurse, they are not even sure their country still exists. The feelings they share under these extraordinary conditions forge an indissoluble bond among them once they have recovered and returned home.

The life of each is marked by loss and neglect. In a situation familiar to readers of Grossman’s earlier novels, the three are cut off from adult life and left to rely on one another. Both Avram and Ilan possess intellectual and imaginative gifts expressed in the witty and fertile language games they play with each other and in the zany radio plays they write and perform. Ora basks in the attention lavished on her by the brilliant but short and stocky Avram, but she is attracted to the artistic and wiry Ilan.

On the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Ora is studying at the Hebrew University while Avram and Ilan, both assigned to intelligence units stationed along the Suez Canal, are serving out the final weeks of their compulsory conscription. Avram’s outpost is overrun on the second day of the war when the Egyptian tanks sweep across the Canal. His comrades are killed and he is left for dead. Ilan deserts his post and tries to rescue his friend, but all he can do is listen via walkie-talkie to Avram’s desperate pleas and his declarations of love for Ora. When Avram is eventually captured, he is not shot but kept alive because he is in intelligence. During the weeks of his captivity, he is tortured by methods far more gruesome than those familiar to us from recent headlines, while being left unsure whether Israel has survived the war.

After being returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange and undergoing innumerable surgeries to repair injuries from the torture, Avram remains a broken man, existing on the margins of the dropout culture of Tel Aviv. He leads a brittle and inert life that never strays from the absolute present. Ora and Ilan give him support and advocate for him at every stage in his recovery, even as they live together as a couple in Jerusalem and, eventually, have a child. Yet the moment that they bring their infant son back from the hospital, Ilan abandons mother and child for two years; he is so consumed by guilt for the horror of Avram’s ordeal and the randomness of his own survival that he cannot function as a father or allow himself the joys of parenthood. The circumstances under which he returns to the marriage are similarly perverse. During their separation, Ora and Ilan have continued to care for Avram and make separate weekly trips to Tel Aviv. Concerned that Avram’s trauma has left him sexually dysfunctional, Ora arouses him, and they sleep together once. She becomes pregnant. Instead of becoming outraged, Ilan is overjoyed at the opportunity to raise Avram’s child. Ilan becomes a model father to both sons, and Ofer is never told that Ilan is not his biological parent. In the meantime, Avram has withdrawn into his own restricted world and cut off relations with Ilan and Ora and the boys. Twenty-one years later, as Ofer reenlists, Ora sets off to trek in the North with Avram in tow.

Now, this is a leviathan of a backstory, and one that presumably needs to be conveyed to the reader before the import of the present action of the novel, the Galilee hike, can make sense. But telling things in their turn is a comfort that Grossman conspicuously and magisterially declines to provide. The freighted details of the rondo of relations among Ora, Avram, and Ilan, and the terrible events of 1973 are disclosed in discontinuous spurts and out of temporal order throughout this lengthy novel. For example, the anguished and heart-thumping story of Avram’s capture and torture, which explains so much, is not related until the end of the novel. No less a fact than Ofer’s biological parentage is not revealed, and then only matter-of-factly, until a third of the way into the book when Ora and Avram are already well into their journey. The reader is frequently whiplashed by sudden shifts in the time frame and by the late disclosure of facts that change everything.

One has the right to wonder whether Grossman is holding us captive to postmodernist high jinks, which have not been beneath him in the past. Yet these manipulations prove to be masterful, and, because of them rather than despite them, the reading of this novel becomes a thrilling experience. Grossman uses these bold narrative devices in the service of a large point about the cross-contamination of the personal by the political in the Israeli reality. The human situation is continually being mugged by the Situation. Or, as Ora puts it more concretely when remembering Avram’s capture, “This country, with its iron boot, had once again landed a thundering foot in a place where the state should not be.” The triangulated desire of the three friends can therefore never be disentangled from the unspeakable trauma that befell one of them. These narrative jolts and dislocations, moreover, induce in the reader something of the disorientation that is experienced by the characters. At many points in the novel, the characters are pushed to epistemic extremities. The three young people in the hospital quarantine in June 1967 don’t know if Israel still exists, just as Avram in his bunker does not in 1973, and this is the same blankness that Ora chooses to inhabit when she cuts herself off from the media and from news of her son’s fate. The open-endedness of the novel’s conclusion, which declines to satisfy our desire for knowledge of what befalls the characters, would seem to be part of Grossman’s same strategy.

Almost everything we know of these tangled affairs comes from what Ora tells Avram as they wade through streams, clamber up mountains, and lay out their (separate) sleeping bags. Although her initial reasons for undertaking the trip may have been rooted in panic and denial, a very different motive soon becomes clear. By telling one affecting anecdote after another about Ofer’s childhood, Ora aims to do nothing less than create within Avram the feeling of paternity he has been fleeing for over twenty years. By slow stages and with a mixture of charm and provocation, Ora’s stories eventually succeed in stimulating an emotional capacity that has lain dormant since his ordeal. Although a part of Avram does come back to life, Grossman is wary of exaggerating how much can truly be recouped.

Accompanying the stories of Ofer’s childhood is an entire chronicle of one Israeli family. Ora’s narrative is so large and inclusive because it addresses not only Avram’s crisis but her own. Ilan and her older son Adam are estranged from her; Ofer’s fate is unknown. The family she has devoted herself to building is now crumbling, and she is impelled to reassure herself of the wonder of what she and Ilan had created and to savor their good fortune under the shadow of the Situation (“We had twenty good years. In our country that’s almost a chutzpah, isn’t it?”). Grossman’s exploration of the subtle dynamics of a happy family is his finest accomplishment in this very fine novel. Here is one beautifully described domestic moment:

She takes him straight there, to the boys’ messy room, roiling with the tumultuous preparations for the difficult, complicated sail into the night, with its shadows and foreignness, and the exile it imposes upon every child in his little, separate bed. After giving them one last hug, another cup of water, pee-pee again, and one more nightlight, and another kiss for the teddy bear or the monkey, and after Adam and Ofer had finished chattering and finally fallen asleep . . .

What parent does not know this seemingly endless bedtime ritual? Yet in “sail into the night” Grossman’s empathy for the children’s experience catches the menace and uncertainty that accompany the kisses for the teddy bear.

There is no smug idealization in this family portrait. Grossman succeeds because he is wickedly acute and hilarious in probing the complex politics of ordinary family life. One of the most brilliant scenes in the novel is an extended account of the simple act of going out to eat at a restaurant. During the several hours of the meal, we witness all the combinatorial possibilities for alliances among the two parents and the two boys (both already soldiers), separately and together, the emotional minefields skirted, the idiosyncrasies pricked and kidded, the gratuitous cruelties to parents atoned for, and the opportunities for laughter seized upon. Grossman conjures up the everyday heroism of creating a “little underground cell in the heart of the Situation” while never letting us forget that there is no escape.

The cost of all this to Israeli women is one of the chief themes of To the End of the Land. Ora has staked her worth and her identity on what she has given to her sons and her husband, and with no regrets. Yet the truth of what it takes to sustain a family is more than sobering.

Most of what she’d done for twenty-five years was mop up everything that poured out of the three of them, each in his own way, everything that they spat out constantly over the years into the family space, namely into her, because she herself, more than any of them, and more than three of them together, was the family space . . . so many toxins and acids she’d absorbed, all the excrements of body and soul, all the excess baggage of their childhoods and adolescence and adulthood. But someone had to absorb all that, didn’t they?

What rankles is not the sacrifice itself, which is shared and necessary, but the fact that it occupies no space in the national narrative and registers on no one but herself.

Ora’s narrative draws together two key threads: family and adolescence. Adam and Ofer are now the same age as when Ora, Ilan, and Avram underwent their fateful ordeal. Her account of Ilan and Avram as teenagers in the years before 1973 draws a picture of two young men, outliers bereft of parents, who create themselves out of their own wit and imagination. The banter between them plays like a crazy mix-tape put together from their voracious and promiscuous rifling of Western literature, the Hebrew Bible, and Israeli popular culture. They are drunk on words and jazz, both smitten with Ora and their destinies as artists. For readers of Grossman’s earlier novels, this is wonderfully familiar ground. As he showed in his earlier novels, The Book of Intimate Grammar, Zig Zag Kid, and Someone to Run With, there are few writers today who so empathically understand the alchemical process whereby children become adults. The failure to negotiate this passage is the subject of Be My Knife and Her Body Knows, Grossman’s most recent fiction. These stories about thirty-somethings mired in obsession have turned out to be interesting but unsatisfying works of art that give the sense of emotional material insufficiently mastered. Grossman’s feeling for adolescence—one is tempted to say, his identification with it—has been so brilliantly intuitive that the imagining of adulthood has scarcely been possible. In To the End of the Land, Grossman makes his breakthrough. Although their lives are weighed down by guilt and loss, Ora and Ilan are shown undertaking the hard adult work of creating a family in which their own sons can find their way, one fervently hopes, among the landmines—figurative and literal—of the Situation.

Ora is an outsized figure who is endowed with Grossman’s prodigious narrative energies. There is an irony not to be missed here. During adolescence, the verbal electricity flowed between the poles of Avram and Ilan while Ora stood by, illuminated by the sparks. With Avram’s spirit destroyed and Ilan out of the picture, Ora becomes the source of a superabundant narrative energy and a kind of native novelist in her own right, populating the intimate space around her with words that aim not only to illuminate but also to heal. The setting for Ora’s recollections is a crucial if enigmatic part of the novel. The name of each micro-wadi in the Galilee is registered together with whole catalogues of rare flora and fauna. For the English reader, these exotic particulars are mesmerizing but remote, as I daresay they are for most urban Israeli readers. The land in the English title of the novel is, after all, the Land. In rooting his story in the streams and flowers of the Land of Israel, Grossman is both employing and questioning deep biblical and Zionist metaphors. Ora flees to the “end of the Land” in order to evade Jerusalem, the notifiers, and the Situation, but what she finds at every step in her journey, in addition to primitive and unsullied natural beauty, are the ruins of Arab villages and private memorial plaques to soldiers fallen in Israel’s wars erected by their bereaved families. In a riveting scene early in the trek with Avram, Ora, shaking with rage, frantically digs a hole in the earth with her bare hands, thrusts her face into the dirt and howls. Only after this catharsis can she begin to tell her story. The Land is a ground that can absorb the anguish emptied into it even as it can enable the growth of new life.

That Grossman immerses us in these difficult Israeli lives is something for which we should be grateful. Many Israeli authors write with one eye on their reception in Europe and America. But the pain and joy that infuse To the End of the Land are wholly domestic. For American Jews who care about Israel, this novel performs the signal service of allowing us to see the everyday struggle to create love and meaning under conditions of threat and uncertainty.

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As Nathan Englander no doubt knows, it is impossible to read kaddish.com without thinking of his own well-publicized background as a yeshiva student who turned away from Orthodoxy.