Book Review: “To the End of the Land” — A Work of Art About Israel, Fear, and Love
“To the End of the Land” is about the devastation of war, how war erodes the human spirit, yet how that spirit is far more resilient that we may have ever suspected.
To The End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Knopf, 576 pages, $26.95.
By Roberta Silman
Once in a while we get an inkling of what it must have been like to open the pages of such novels as Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, The Sound and The Fury, The Great Gatsby, To The Lighthouse, or The Slave when they were first published, before any reviews or critical essays were written about them. We understand what it must have been like to feel the greatness of the prose almost viscerally as we take it in, knowing our angle of vision has changed forever. That is how I felt when I finished David Grossman’s new novel, To The End of the Land, translated superbly by Jessica Cohen. It surpasses anything he has written before, and, for me it surpasses anything I have read in decades. For here is a novel that makes you feel as if you are living it as you read – something not quite possible in masterpieces of quite a different order, such as A Hundred Years of Solitude, or works by Borges or Cortazar or Calvino. Or even in Ulysses, which is so heavily buttressed by Homer.
To The End of the Land is rooted in a reality so vivid, is so radiant with life, and is so precise in its delineation of its characters that it would be an important addition to the world’s literature at any time. But its publication now, when leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Territories are trying to broker a lasting peace, makes it required reading in a way few novels ever are. For it is about the devastation of war, how war erodes the human spirit, yet how that spirit is far more resilient that we may have ever suspected. Moreover, it is written with a humanity, an intimacy and a generosity that make it utterly unique.
Although well known in Israel, where he was born in 1954, and in Europe where he has received many prestigious prizes, Grossman is not as famous in this country for his fiction as he is for his leftist politics and his non-fiction book The Yellow Wind, which deals with the Israeli Palestinian conflict and in which he is fiercely critical of Israeli policy. Or for the devastating fact that he lost a son in the 2006 war with Lebanon. At the close of To The End of the Land is a note worth quoting in its entirety because it tells the story exactly:
I began writing this book in May of 2003, six months before the end of my oldest son, Jonathan’s, military service, and a year before his younger brother, Uri, enlisted. They both served in the Armored Corps.
Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters’ lives. (“What did you do to them this week?” was his regular question.) He spent most of his service in the Occupied Territories, on patrols, lookouts, ambushes, and checkpoints, and he occasionally shared his experiences with me.
At the time, I had the feeling – or, rather, a wish — that the book I was writing would protect him.
On August 12th, 2006, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon. His tank was hit by a rocket while trying to rescue soldiers from another tank. Together with Uri, all of the members of his tank crew were killed: Bnayah Rein, Adam Goren, and Alex Bonimovitch.
After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.
The novel begins with a Prologue dated 1967. The war has begun in Israel and three teenage kids – Ora, Avram, and Ilan – are stranded in a hospital with high fevers that create delirium and also a freedom possible only when people are young and in dire straits. As Ora and Avram share their confusion and their secrets, first with each other, and then in the presence of the other boy, Ilan, you know that this triangle will grow into a haunting connection that only death can break. Yet Grossman does it with such a light touch, with such authority (somehow you know who is speaking without the usual guidelines), and with so much wit that you are intrigued and enmeshed in these young lives before you know it.
And then, suddenly, it is 2000 and Ora (Or is light in Hebrew) is in a taxi driven by her Arab friend, Sami, taking her second son, Ofer, back to active duty although this is exactly opposite of what she had planned – which was to hike with Ofer, just the two of them, in the Galilee after her son had finished his tour of duty. How had she gotten into the cab? She goes over it in her mind:
[She asks,] “But did they call to let you know?” Because she remembered she hadn’t heard the phone ring. . .
“What difference does it make who called? There’s an operation, and there’s an emergency call-up, and half the country’s being recruited.”
Ora wouldn’t give in—Me? Pass up getting pricked with such a perfect thorn? she asked herself later—and she leaned weakly against the doorway, crossed her arms over her chest and demanded that he tell her exactly how things had progressed to that phone call. She would not let up until he admitted that he had called them that morning, even before six he had called the battalion and begged them to take him, even though today, at nine-zero-zero, he was supposed to be at the induction center for his discharge, and from there to drive to the Galilee with her.
Once Ofer has returned to active duty Ora is trapped, first in the cab with Sami as he uncharacteristically makes her uncomfortable on an errand of his own, and then back in her flat where she seems doomed to wait through the next 28 days of Ofer’s tour for word of him. However, something in her rebels and she decides that she will put herself out of reach of all communication and take that hike by herself, or, better yet, with her old friend, Avram, whom she hasn’t seen in years, who is just a shadow of who he used to be, but who, to her surprise, consents to join her.
The rest of the novel is a walk, sometimes a tramp, sometimes a real hike up mountains and down, during which we get a sense of Israel’s natural beauty, and during which the pair meet other people and occasionally interact with them. They prepare food, they sleep, Ora writes in her notebook, but mostly they talk, and as they talk Ora brings Ofer to life for Avram, and we learn how these three have lived since their fateful meeting. Grossman takes his time, but each page compels as we find out more and more about Ora’s marriage to Ilan, about her two sons, Adam and Ofer, and about Avram’s life as well. Unlike Scheherazade, Ora tells only one story — of her complicated family. But like that ancient storyteller, it is to save a life — not her own, but Ofer’s. For if she and Avram don’t know Ofer’s fate, then surely he has to stay alive. This is the kind of magical thinking we all know, especially those of us who have children.
What makes the book so remarkable are Grossman’s uncanny insights into the details of family life – often observed only by women, we have mistakenly led ourselves to think – as well as his ability to erase chronology and move around in time. Ora and Avram’s lives are, literally, turned inside out, revealing parts that are so painful to read that one sometimes has to close the book for a moment to take a breath. And yet there are other parts so surprising, so amazing, that you feel that these two people are being reborn, that they are not only trying to keep Ofer alive, but are becoming alive to each other again. As they talk, their lives and memories become so intertwined that we are in several moments at once. This is a marvelous achievement, what every writer hopes for and what Grossman does seamlessly. But it requires enormous skill. By the end, every piece in what had been an increasingly jagged puzzle fits together and finally reveals to the reader the complicated truth of the Ora, Avram, Ilan triangle as well as the tremendous costs of living in a country beleaguered by war since its inception.
I don’t know if my reaction to To The End of the Land was so strong because it could be about my own life, if not for the accident of chance which led my father from Lithuania to America while several of his siblings fled to Palestine to escape the Nazi terror. I’m sure that’s part of it. Because I finally understand in ways I never did — even after poring over Amichai and Oz and Yehoshua – how perilous life is in that tiny country for a woman with children, for a man who has had to continue to live after capture and torture, for children to whom death is a constant reality and for people who live, day in and day out, surrounded by friends and neighbors (like Sami) whose feelings are never entirely clear and whose trust can never be entirely taken for granted. How perilous it is to live a life so permeated with fear.
Yet shining through all that is Ora and her astonishing capacity for love. Here she is in a scene when Ofer has come home:
She retreats into the depths of the kitchen, brimming with animal happiness. If she could, she would lick him all over–even now, at his age–and scrub off everything that had stuck to him, restore the childhood smells that still linger in her nostrils, her mouth, her saliva. A wave of warmth spills out to him inside her, and Ofer, without budging at all, moves a whole hair’s breadth away from her. She feels it, and she knew it would happen: he seals himself off with that same quick shift of the soul that she knows from Ilan and Adam, from all her men, who time after time have slammed their doors shut in the face of her brimming, leaving her tenderness fluttering outside, faltering, turning instantly into caricature.
Grossman is an Israeli writer, just as his idol, Sholem Aleichem, was a Yiddish writer, but a passage like this compels universal attention. It is only one of many that reveal the tremendous value of this novel. I urge everyone I know, and don’t know, to buy To The End of the Land and savor it as I have. (I hope the Nobel Prize Committee has read these galleys, too.) For here in the first decade of this troubled century David Grossman has given us a work of art so complex and tragic yet so beautiful that it will surely be cherished by future generations, not only as a testament to his remarkable gifts but also to the memory of the child he and his wife lost while he was writing it.
Roberta Silman is the author of a story collection, Blood Relations, now available as an ebook, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.