'To The End' A Solemn Exploration Of Israeli Identity

To The End Of The Land
To the End of the Land
By David Grossman
Hardcover, 592 pages
Knopf
List Price: $26.95

Read An Excerpt

If there is such a thing as scaling Mount Everest in fiction, it's writing a novel that gives us individual lives in their fullness while also capturing how these lives fit into the flow of history.  Where most Americans see themselves primarily as free, self-defining individuals, in many other countries, that's almost impossible — history is constantly rubbing up against you.

Nowhere is that truer than in the Holy Land. I was reminded of this as I read To the End of the Land, the latest novel by David Grossman, the brilliant Israeli writer and activist whom some call "the conscience of his country," an honorific I sure don't envy him. I have enough trouble being the conscience of myself without having to do the job for millions of other people.

That said, To the End of the Land is a novel that, among many other things, is about conscience. Its heroine is Ora, a gray-haired mother of two, recently separated from her husband. When her beloved son Ofer goes off on a military operation, Ora is terrified for his life. But rather than wait for the so-called "notifiers" to show up at her door with horrible news, she leaves Jerusalem. This is at once a form of magical thinking — if she's not there to get the bad news, then Ofer won't be hurt — and a way of refusing to be part of the war-making process. And so Ora hikes for days in the hills of Galilee along with her former lover, Avram, from whom she's been estranged for decades.

As the two climb between terebinth trees and placards devoted to those killed in Israel's wars, Ora tells her life story. We learn all about her and husband Ilan, their two sons, Ofer and Adam, and the family life they built. Along the way, we also learn what happened during the Yom Kippur War that turned Avram, once a spritely source of exuberant artistry, into a quiet man who has retreated from the world.

Grossman began working on this book when his son Uri was in the army, and he hoped that writing it would somehow protect him.  It didn't. Uri and his tank mates were killed by a rocket in Southern Lebanon. Naturally, this gives To the End of the Land a moving resonance, but Grossman would be the first to say that this doesn't guarantee its literary merit or give it any special moral authority on questions of war and peace. If the book was only about Ora fearing for her son, it would be just another boringly well-meaning anti-war novel.

David Grossman i i

hide captionDavid Grossman is the author of The Smile of the Lamb and Someone to Run With, among others.

Peter-Andreas Hassiepen
David Grossman

David Grossman is the author of The Smile of the Lamb and Someone to Run With, among others.

Peter-Andreas Hassiepen

In fact, it's much, much more.  For starters, Ora's story is about living in a country defined by what's known simply as "the situation," the daily pressure of Middle Eastern history with its hatred and pettiness and killing. The book's original Hebrew title is "A Woman Flees News," and the point is that Israelis can't really flee it and remain Israelis. And this exacts all sorts of costs on everyone — Jews and Arabs alike. Ora isn't simply worried that Ofer will be killed but that, in the ugly process of fighting the nation's battles, he will turn into someone she can't approve of, a hypermasculine thug. She wants him — and Israel — to have a clear conscience.

Then again, if To the End of the Land were only about the soul of Israel, it would feel abstract and emotionally hollow. Instead, it's enormously powerful.  Grossman has a feel for the fury and mire of domestic life, for the thrilling sound of the individual human voice. I've read few novels that capture so well the adventure of raising kids — Grossman has always been drawn to the magic of childhood — or the way that men's bantering conversation can close out women, even a mother who loves them.

At the center of all of this stands the unforgettable figure of Ora, a woman at once nurturing and exhausting, sensual and deeply moral, boundlessly garrulous and not a little secretive, a life force and a real piece of work. As both a devoted mother of two sons and a loyal daughter of Israel, she yearns to be free of the moral and physical threats that are the very air she must breathe, but like Grossman, she knows there's no escape from history, let alone what lies beneath it — the terrible fragility of families and nations and life itself.

John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com

Excerpt: 'To The End Of The Land'

To The End Of The Land
To the End of the Land
By David Grossman
Hardcover, 592 pages
Knopf
List Price: $26.95

When they get to the meeting point, Sami pulls into the first parking spot he finds, yanks up the emergency brake, folds his arms over his chest, and announces that he will wait for Ora there. And he asks her to be quick, which he has never done before. Ofer gets out of the cab and Sami does not move. He hisses something, but she can't tell what. She hopes he was saying goodbye to Ofer, but who knows what he was muttering. She marches after Ofer, blinking at the dazzling lights: rifle barrels, sunglasses, car mirrors. She doesn't know where he is leading her and is afraid he will get swallowed up among the hundreds of young men and she will never see him again. Meaning — she immediately corrects herself, revising the grim minutes she has been keeping all day — she won't see him again until he comes home. The sun beats down, and the horde becomes a heap of colorful, bustling dots. She focuses on Ofer's long khaki back. His walk is rigid and slightly arrogant. She can see him broaden his shoulders and widen his stance. When he was twelve, she remembers, he used to change his voice when he answered the phone and project a strained "Hello" that was supposed to sound deep, and a minute later he would forget and go back to his thin squeak. The air around her buzzes with shouts and whistles and megaphone calls and laughter. "Honey, answer me, it's me, Honey, answer me, it's me," sings a ringtone on a nearby cell phone that seems to follow her wherever she goes. Within the commotion Ora swiftly picks up the distant chatter of a baby somewhere in the large gathering ground, and the voice of his mother answers sweetly. She stands for a moment looking for them but cannot find them, and she imagines the mother changing the baby's diaper, maybe on the hood of a car, bending over and tickling his tummy, and she stands slightly stooped, hugging her suede bag to her body, and laps up the soft double trickle of sounds until it vanishes.

It is all a huge, irredeemable mistake. It seems to her that as the moment of separation approaches, the families and the soldiers fill with arid merriment, as if they have all inhaled a drug meant to dull their comprehension. The air bustles with the hum of a school trip or a big family excursion. Men her age, exempt from reserve duty, meet their friends from the army, the fathers of the young soldiers, and exchange laughter and backslaps. "We've done our part," two stout men tell each other, "now it's their turn." Television crews descend on families saying goodbye to their loved ones. Ora is thirsty, parched. Half running, she trails behind Ofer. Every time her gaze falls on the face of a soldier she unwittingly pulls back, afraid she will remember him: Ofer once told her that when they had their pictures taken sometimes, before they set off on a military campaign, the guys made sure to keep their heads a certain distance from each other, so there'd be room for the red circle that would mark them later, in the newspaper. Screeching loudspeakers direct the soldiers to their battalions' meeting points —  a meetery, they call this, and she thinks in her mother's voice: barbarians, language-rapists — and suddenly Ofer stops and she almost walks into him. He turns to her and she feels a deluge. "What's the matter with you?" he whispers into her face. "What if they find an Arab here and think he's come to commit suicide? And didn't you think about how he feels having to drive me here? Do you even get what this means for him?"

She doesn't have the energy to argue or explain. He's right, but she really wasn't in a state to think about anything. How can he not understand her? She just wasn't thinking. A white fog had filled her mind from the moment he told her that instead of going on the trip to the Galilee with her he was going off to some kasbah or mukataa. That was at six a.m. She had woken to hear his voice whispering into the phone in the other room, and hurried in there. Seeing his guilty look she had tensed and asked, "Did they call?"

"They say I have to go."

"But when?"

"ASAP."

She asked if it couldn't wait a little while, so they could at least do the trip for two or three days, because she realized immediately that a whole week with him was a dream now. She added with a pathetic smile, "Didn't we say we'd have a few puffs of family-together time?"

He laughed and said, "Mom, it's not a game, it's war," and because of his arrogance — his, and his father's, and his brother's, their patronizing dance around her most sensitive trigger points — she spat back at him that she still wasn't convinced that the male brain could tell the difference between war and games. For a moment she allowed herself some modest satisfaction with the debating skills she'd displayed even before her morning coffee, but Ofer shrugged and went to his room to pack, and precisely because he did not respond with a witty answer, as he usually did, she grew suspicious.

She followed him and asked, "But did they call to let you know?" Because she remembered that she hadn't heard the phone ring.

Ofer took his military shirts from the closet, and pairs of gray socks, and shoved them into his backpack. From behind the door he grumbled, "What difference does it make who called? There's an operation, and there's an emergency call-up, and half the country's reporting for duty."

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. As he lowered his gaze and mumbled on, she discovered, to her horror, that the army hadn't even considered asking him to prolong his service. As far as they were concerned he was a civilian, deep into his discharge leave. It was he, Ofer admitted defiantly, his forehead turning red, whowasn't willing to give up. "No way! After eating shit for three years so I'd be ready for exactly this kind of operation?" Three years of checkpoints and patrols, little kids in Palestinian villages and settlements throwing stones at him, not to mention the fact that he hadn't even been within spitting distance of a tank for six months, and now, at last, with his lousy luck, this kind of kick-ass operation, three armored units together — there were tears in his eyes, and for a moment you might have thought he was haggling with her to be allowed to come back late from a class Purim party — how could he sit at home or go hiking in the Galilee when all his guys would be there? In short, she discovered that he, on his own initiative, had convinced them to enlist him on a voluntary basis for another twenty-eight days.

"Oh," she said, when he finished his speech, and it was a hollow, muffled Oh. And I dragged my corpse into the kitchen, she thought to herself. It was an expression of Ilan's, her ex, the man who had shared her life and, in their good years, enriched the goodness. The fullness of life, the old Ilan used to say and blush with gratitude, with reserved, awkward enthusiasm, which propelled Ora toward him on a wave of love. She always thought that deep in his heart he was amazed at having been granted this fullness of life at all. She remembers when the kids were little and they lived in Tzur Hadassah, in the house they bought from Avram, how they liked to hang the laundry out to dry at night, together, one last domestic chore at the end of a long, exhausting day. Together they would carry the large tub out to the garden facing the dark fields and the valley, and the Arab village of Hussan. The great fig tree and the grevillea rustled softly with their own mysterious, rich lives, and the laundry lines filled up with dozens of tiny articles of clothing like miniature hieroglyphics: little socks and undershirts and cloth shoes and

pants with suspenders and colorful OshKosh overalls. Was there someone from Hussan who had gone out in the last light of day and was watching them now? Aiming a gun at them? Ora wondered sometimes, and a chill would flutter down her spine. Or was there a general, human immunity for people hanging laundry — especially this kind of laundry?

Excerpted from To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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