BOOK REVIEW / Baroque feasts snatched from hell: 'The Book of Intimate Grammar' - David Grossman: Cape, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
DAVID GROSSMAN is two distinct writers. One writes books like Sleeping on a Wire: conversations with Palestinians in Israel, in which the author didn't just take a back seat, he almost disappeared into the twin roles of tape-recorder and stenographer. But his soft-footed intelligence spoke volumes. The other produces fiction like See Under: Love, a flamboyantly written, highly experimental novel that dealt with the legacy of the Holocaust, but in which the writer allowed himself to be breezily inventive and fantastic, to be described as a 'magic realist' and to hop from tales of the concentration camps to obscure dream-voyages as a salmon.

It's wonderful that David Grossman can combine such extremes. Israeli literature, like South African literature, is generally known here for its grimy, worn-down realism. Writers like A B Yehoshua and Amos Oz don't translate the experiences of their fellow countrymen very far in their fiction, they record them stark and straight. Grossman is prepared to shatter that tradition in favour of something personal and experimental. But he is also grappling, at the same time, with the problems of what it means to be Israeli, what its history and its present situation do to its people.

You have to remind yourself of all that when you open David Grossman's new novel, The Book of Intimate Grammar, because contrary to the jacket's assertion that it is 'Grossman's most accessible novel to date', he has never written anything so esoteric. It's the tale of a young boy growing up in a desperately poor apartment block in Jerusalem, who has been the leader of his group of friends in the serious, naive games of childhood, and suddenly finds himself a misfit as they grow away from him into the adult world. As he goes quietly, sadly mad, this book becomes a long and convoluted prose poem about family, puberty and misery. As poetry is what gets lost in translation, I can quite well believe that English readers of this book are missing out on much of its swagger and mystique. What we have is something baffling, if sternly beautiful, and it requires some effort to glean any meaning from it beyond the occasional flash of a quickly- palmed image.

Sometimes, it's true, the book can be appreciated as a mere repository of images and fables. There are some surreal, operatic set-pieces that sway into the high ground of the best magical fiction. When Aron's father knocks down a wall for his neighbour, Edna, the scene explodes into an inexplicable madness and sexuality: he goes on to destroy her whole flat with Edna cooking baroque feasts of chicken and veal. 'But the hammering. Listen, Edna, the grunting, the hammering, the groaning, the hammering, pay attention, there's something different there . . . She sat up in her armchair, nodding her head like an anxious bird, and Papa's hammer cried to her, cleaved to her: sometimes it struck despairingly, as though caught in a storm, calling SOS like a telegraph key; sometimes it was more like a prisoner tapping to find out if there was anyone in the neighbouring cell. Oh yes, she nodded vigorously, oh yes, oh yes, there is, and then a mild shudder trickled through her, like a drop of aphrodisiac . . . it was, it was addressed to her, intended for her, the hidden signs, the invisible writing, the secret letter smuggled in . . .'

Most of the book is far grimmer than that. Grossman has entered the poignantly sad world of children before. In See Under: Love, Momik, the child of Holocaust survivors, kept an imaginary Nazi beast in the cellar and tried to appease it. Both in that book and in this Grossman shows how the mind of a child can be closely bound up with the trauma of his parents. Aron's father knew what it was to be pushed to the brink of physical disintegration; when he tells tales of his escape from a concentration camp with a companion, he remembers: 'I was more afraid of Molochinko than I was of the wolves, because if he'd seen how weak I was, he would have butchered me on the spot, that's right.'

As a result, Aron's parents want one thing for their child: physical prowess. And yet Aron will not grow up. He remains tiny, with no signs of puberty, refusing to eat. He finds his parents' embrace of life, of the life they snatched from the jaws of hell, simply disgusting. He loathes their desire for food and sex and wealth. He notes down every sign of physical maturing in his friends with fascinated horror.

Aron is reacting to his environment by negating it. When his friends argue about politics and demand his opinion, he can hardly speak, and finally stammers: 'Kids our age don't understand what values are, all we do is imitate the high-sounding language we hear from grown-ups.'

For Aron, history is the nightmare in which he will always live. By digging so deeply within the psyches of himself and his fellow-men in characters like Aron and See Under: Love's Momik, Grossman has discovered an uncomfortable, almost unbearable kernel of pain and victim- hood. We know that Grossman himself has transcended that in his dazzling fiction and his sharply etched non-fiction, but in Aron's world there is no such escape. The only way out is his long- dreamed of death: 'When I die, I want my death to be long and drawn-out . . . I really want to get to know my death. . . I mean, that's the important thing in life, isn't it?'