IT is hard to know what kind of story David Grossman would have written in his newest novel, To the End of the Land, if his own son Uri wouldn’t have gotten killed in the final hours of the 2006 Lebanon War.
In the novel, Grossman creates an Israeli mother, Ora, whose son Ofer has volunteered to go back into active duty at the outset of the war. She decides that if she goes away from home on a walking trip in the Galilee, she can protect her son from harm, and herself from having to answer the door for the army’s notifiers. If no one is home, she rationalizes, no bad news can come her way.
Within this fantasy, Grossman creates a thoroughly absorbing and well developed character, whose moral compass and impulsivity, passion and fears are the struggles of many Israeli mothers with sons in the armed forces.
Grossman’s final edition was written after he had to answer the door for the notifiers in his reallife about his son’s death. Perhaps this novel was his own fantasy “protective bubble” that he was trying to wrap around himself and his family while his son Uri was serving in the war.
Yet, Grossman insists in a podcast interview with London’s The Guardian, that writing the book, which he started in 2003, always had this looming shadow hanging over him. This is something every Israeli family has to live with, he insists. He says that all Israeli parents live with this sense that they are borrowing their children for a limited time.
Still, it is hard not to think that by writing on this subject and creating this story he wasn’t sub-consciously creating his own survival mechanism for a looming tragedy — a drama even Shakespeare couldn’t have written.
GROSSMAN infuses Ora, the protagonist, and the two men in her life, her husband, Ilan, and her original lover, Avram, with the entire gamut of emotions.
The reader gets to know Ora as she takes this walking trip with Avram — her gait, her different tones, the erratic pattern of her thoughts, her sensitivities and vulnerabilities, the disappointments and joys that have brought her to this point. Ora is a character that gets under your skin, into your gut, and still somehow holds your interest.
Through this emotional landscape, Grossman takes the reader back to the beginning, when Ora, Avram and Ilan first met.
While this is much more than an anti-war novel, each major step in the plot is a result of one of the Israeli wars. War, its meaning and aftermath, is part of what informs the characters’ stories, and the stories of all Israelis.
Grossman is attempting to show how war both destroys and shapes a family unit and the larger family unit, the nation. To do this, he closely analyzes what makes a family, the trivial elements of domestic life that create memory, love and loss. He takes you into Ora’s living room, 20 years earlier, when her son Ofer takes his first steps, but chooses to run toward his brother, not his parents; or when her other son goes through a brief vegetarian stage after he learns that humans kill animals.
For Ora, these represent the choic- es children already make about their parents, their siblings, and life itself.
All of these memories and incidents are the cells that make up the nuclear family.
Similarly, Grossman takes you into Ora’s inner conflict as a mother who wants to protect her children from death, but also from the immorality of killing other (Palestinian) children. Her conflict is at first demonstrated by the irrationality that she asks her young adult, soldier-children to engage in.
The full scope of her moral conflict is seen later, after one of her children has committed a crime while serving on the West Bank. She behaves dangerously, believing that in some way she can and should pay back for her son’s behavior. This moral conflict is at the fabric of the novel, of Grossman’s heart, and, it seems, at the heart of many Israelis.
As the conversations between Ora and Avram progress during their walk, the origin and consequences of the relationship between Ora and Avram become clearer: a split second decision made when they were young, under the duress of war, is what binds them and rips them apart.
Grossman shows how Ora is shaped through these decisions that reverberate throughout her life, and then how her son’s decisions will also reverberate throughout his life and his parents’ lives, too.
These common threads become Grossman’s paradigm for how Israel’s decisions are shaping and creating its people and moral history.
IN the early part of their lives, all three characters are immersed in the yearnings and passions of young people, of a young State of Israel.
While Grossman works hard to build the microcosm of a family in all its intimate detail, he also attempts to build that on a macro level as he subtextually speaks of the creation and building of Israeli society — its hopes, dreams and betrayals as a state and a people.
The theme of home and exile — ever present because of Jewish history, the Israeli Palestinian conflict and, of course, the intimate triangle between Ora, Ilan and Avraham — begins to emerge.
With agonizingly vivid detail, Grossman creates literal and figurative exiles for the three characters. Of course, in contrast to exile is home, but this concept seems to elude all of his characters, and perhaps subconsciously Israel itself, as they all struggle to create home from the chaos of war and its implications.
While the novel is dense, and at times hard to follow, it presents a magnificent mastery of a character. Ora is someone the reader can’t help but experience through her predictability and impulsivity, a woman much closer to reality than those characters who don’t vacillate between the gray spaces that define most of our days and lives.
The reader accompanies Ora on her anxiety-ridden walk, while she tries to live life to its fullest in the desperate days between fathoming the worst and hoping for the best, facing death while trying to run back toward life.
Likewise, Grossman takes the reader through his emotional landscape as he mourns something gone from the dream of Israel and from his own family.
Of his personal experience Grossman writes that after his son Uri died, “You feel exiled from everything before.” He adds that continuing to work on the novel following his son’s death was an instinctive choice.
“Going back to writing was a way to recreate a home in the chaos. It was a way of choosing life again.”
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News