BOOK REVIEW / Giving voice to a tongue: The Book of Intimate Grammar - by David Grossman: Cape, pounds 14.99

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'CHILDHOOD is the great museum of our memory,' said the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and David Grossman, Israel's finest living novelist, would be the first to agree. In Grossman's fiction, to show the world through the eyes of a child is the most positive and illuminating thing that a novelist can do. It is a means of de-militarising the soul; a way of returning the psyche to a more fragile and unguarded stage of its development. Once disarmed, human life can be re-experienced as it really is.

In See Under: Love, for example, Grossman's last novel published in 1989, the child Momik emerges, through the exercise of childish fantasies, into a painful awareness of what the hauntingly euphemistic phrase 'the Nazi Beast' really means to the adults who surround him. The portrait of Aron Kleinfeld in The Book of Intimate Grammar is the most profoundly pathetic picture of a child Grossman has ever drawn.

The novel is set in a poor housing project in Jerusalem, home to scores of Eastern European refugees, in the 1960s. Aron, aged 11 when the novel begins, is the son of a Polish refugee father, and, in the eyes of his parents, a source of enduring shame - short, myopic, scrawny; incapable, it seems, of growing into the seemly shape of manhood. Having once been a leader in childhood games of make-believe among his school friends, he now finds himself increasingly outcast because of his physical shortcomings. And his parents offer him precious little sympathy or comfort.

The novel has its few fleeting moments of bleak, poignant humour. As his Bar Mitzvah approaches, Aron's mother makes increasingly desperate attempts to persuade herself that his feet are growing by having him wear thick socks inside his shoes. At the ceremony itself, Aron suffers the humiliation of being obliged to wear elevator shoes to give the assembled relatives an fleeting illusion of physical normality. Fortunately, Aron's uncommon stuntedness goes hand in hand with an intellectual maturity well beyond his years and, rejected by others as well as himself (he too has come to despise his body and he hates even his name), he learns to experience life through the intimate grammar of the more private, less vulnerable reality of language. He drives himself into the deepest recesses of his own personality, becoming, in his own words, 'a spy in enemy territory', 'a secret agent sent by death to prepare humanity for its sorrows'.

On one level, The Book of Intimate Grammar is the portrait of a suffering child; on another, it is, in Camus' famous phrase, a parable of 'dis-ease', the portrait not so much of a boy as of a suffering nation which is in the throes of learning to accept its own legitimacy and stature among other nations. It is a book about the reality and vitality of language per se. Aron, having struggled to crystallise a language of his own, learns to experience it most fully when the outside world - his parents, relatives and friends - seems to be most at war with him. It is also a book about David Grossman's efforts to maintain the legitimacy of the Hebrew language as a great modern literary tongue: to refine it, to help it become the national archive of its people, the means of bring them closer to a sense of their common identity and shared heritage.

To have such ambitions, as Grossman knows, is almost to violate a taboo. But it is a taboo that demands to be violated for the sake of the world's future and its guarded optimisms. Of course, this is not to say that literature solves problems. It merely makes them clearer.