Our member Elayne Klasson writes:
There are two kinds of literary criticism. In one, we consider only the text. The author’s biography is just “gossip”. We are advised to look only at the merits of this work. In another form of literary criticism, we accept that to understand the text, you must know the biography. This amazing book, To the End of the Land, must be looked at both ways.
David Grossman is one of the most famous and well respected liberal Zionists found in Israel’s literary scene. In a country of readers, his success is impressive. With a population of only 7 million, this book, Isha Borachat Mi’bsora, sold 100,000 copies. He has been described as a literary patriot, even before the events of August 12, 2006. He has struggled widely in his work on answering the questions of the public and private perils of occupation and war. What does war do to young soldiers, to the Israeli people’s self-image? He asks of Israelis, “What kind of people are we?” Importantly, he asks these questions as an insider, a man who loves his country—but does not love unquestioningly. What happened on August 12, 2006? On this day, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, Grossman’s beloved son Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon. He is believed to be the last soldier killed in that war. The book was largely written before that date, but the reality of his son’s death added another layer of reality to the final draft.
It is said that Israel is a big family, and on that night, when the officials came to tell the Grossmans of their son’s death, news traveled fast. People were already gathering at the house, because many knew of the boy’s death even before his parents did. Thousands gathered in the week of sitting shiva at the Grossman home. The tragedy resonated deeply in Israel and abroad and the family of Israel, despite being a quarrelsome one, pulls together in grief.
Grossman is a leftist and an atheist. Yet, he has studied bible with friends every Thursday night for the past 20 years. He is an activist in the extreme for peace and opposed to occupation—traveling to a Jerusalem Hill almost weekly to join anti-occupational protests. Yet, when he was writing the book, his older son Jonathan had recently completed his military service and his younger son, Yuri, was 3 months short of completing his military service, serving in the same unit as his brother. This year, the Grossman’s youngest child, Ruti has begun to serve her three years of service with the Israeli military. Grossman says he never considered moving or finding some way for Ruti to avoid serving. We see a man of contrasts. He has said of himself, “I am a man whose love for the land is overwhelming and complex.” Then, at an Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv in 2006, he delivered a shattering verdict about the country he loves, “The State of Israel has been squandering not only the lives of its sons, but also the miracle of its grand and rare opportunity that history bestowed upon it, the opportunity to establish a state that is democratic and abides by Jewish universal values.”
Let us speak of the novel itself. Its main concerns are family. It has been described as a domestic epic. It is about the cost of three wars on a family. It examines war with delicate and beautiful nuances, and does so through the eyes of a mother. Grossman writes, better than any man I’ve previously read, about being a mother and the passion one pours into raising children—how a mother notices every detail of her beloved child and fights for his survival.
Ora, the mother, is a middle aged woman who is tender and passionate and funny. Her husband, Ilan, has recently left her and is traveling in South America with their older son. She decides that she is going out of her mind with worry about her younger son, Ofer, who was soon to be discharged, before his unit was remobilized. In a bout of magical thinking, she decides that if she can’t be found by the authorities bearing bad news, then the bad news cannot happen. Her son cannot get hurt. And so the Israeli title can be translated, “WOMAN FLEES TIDINGS.”
She will walk the Israel Trail, though she is woefully unprepared for the journey. She knows she must keep walking to keep her son safe. She chooses to walk with a man, Avram, she and her husband have known since childhood. Both men, Avram, emotional, brilliant wordy, and Ilan, cool rational structured, have loved Ora and she, in different parts of her life, has loved them both. However, through a twist of fate, when all three were doing their military service in the 1973 war, Avram is captured and tortured and returned to Israel a broken man. Ofer has since married Ilan, a lawyer, and they have had a son, Adam. The capture and torture of Avram affects all three characters and leaves scars that cannot be eased. Another son is born to Ora, Ofer. She uses the days long walk not only to keep away the “notifiers”, but to tell Avram that in a brief time when they were lovers, he fathered the younger boy. Avram, not Ilan, is Ofer’s father. She has a desperate need for Avram, damaged as he is (for he has never recovered from the period in captivity when he was tortured), to acknowledge and know the boy. She understands how hard it will be to know another person through mere words, but she is desperate for her child to be known and remembered, and words are all she has.
The writing is lyrical, both of the land and the beloved boy, Ofer. And, Grossman catches the intimacy of friendship and marriage in a profound way. I can compare it to The English Patient, another book about war and the damage it inflicts, written in achingly beautiful language. Grossman writes about ordinary, everyday scenes of family life, along with the extraordinary, as when the captured Avram is released from Arab captivity, and he asks, “Is there an Israel?” as his first question.
Grossman writes of these life and death matters for Israel, but in an intimate and domestic setting. Some in Israel call him “The Martin Luther King” of their country—the conscience of their country. To some he is a hero, to others he is an unrealistic dreamer. I try to look at the man separate from his art, but I had a hard time doing so when thinking of To the End of the Land. As Colm Toibin said in his New York Times Review in 2010, “This is one of the few novels that feel as though they have made a difference in the world.”
In this time of conflict in Israel, I hope there is still room to love Israel, and question the path of war and look at the effects on families on all sides of Israel’s borders.