Jonathan Cape, £18.99, 577pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
To the End of the Land, By David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen
Friday 27 August 2010
In David Grossman's long-awaited new novel, Avram, an Israeli prisoner of war in Egypt after the Yom Kippur war, observes a fellow-POW "crying out of jealousy for his girlfriend", and feels reverence for a man who "could find such dedication to his own private pain, which had nothing to do with the Egyptians and their tortures". For seven years, English-language readers of Grossman have been awaiting a new work of fiction. His last, Her Body Knows, was two novellas, returning to the private themes of intimacy between men and women and sexual jealousy: a turning-away from the world at the moment after the outbreak of the second intifada, when the political was invading every aspect of Israeli life.
In 2003, Grossman began an epic new novel, which finally arrives in English translation, in which a woman tries to evade delivery of the dreaded news that her son has been killed in action by running away from home. But fiction extended a hand out to the territory of the real. Grossman has always had an extraordinary imagination; in this case, having written much of a first draft, he received that news himself, of his son Uri's death in the closing hours of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and returned to his fictional characters to infuse them with what he calls "the echo of reality".
Ora reasons that if she is not there to hear the news, then it can't be delivered; and if it is not delivered, then it hasn't happened. Irrationally, she feels that in this way she is protecting her son Ofer. But mother and son are in a complicated web of relationships going back long before his birth.
Abandoned in the isolation ward of a Tel Aviv hospital during the Six Day War, terrified that the city and the county has already fallen to the Egyptians, Ora and two other sick teenagers, Avram and Ilan, huddle together and try to comfort each other. Avram is the artist, the romantic, the boy Ora is already falling in love with. The reader suspects that the sickly Ilan will not survive.
But 40 years later, at the start of another war, Ora is the separated wife of Ilan, now a successful lawyer, and the mother of two sons. Ofer has just finished his military service but has volunteered to do another 28 days. It is part of the knotty paradox of Israel that the person who takes him to his base is the family's long-standing taxi driver, Sami, a Palestinian-Israeli, who is being asked to deliver a soldier to wage war on his own people.
These early scenes in which a mother's tenacious desire to protect her son come into collision with Sami's bitten-down rage, expressed as his refusal to turn down the music on the radio, are part of the underlying fabric of a novel in which we see how the Israeli military occupies all human spaces.
Deciding that she won't return home to await the knock on the door, Ora immediately embarks on the aborted hiking trip she and Ofer had planned. She makes Sami drive to Tel Aviv to pick up Avram. The teenage artist is now a middle-aged down-and-out, surviving on his wages as a dishwasher in a restaurant, sick, physically repulsive and emotionally deadened.
Ora forces him to go off on this hiking trip, beginning with him losing control of his bladder and urinating on Sami's new upholstery - a final insult of occupier and occupied. In the course of their hike through Israel, Ora and Avram revisit their lives and the tangled relationship between themselves and Ilan. Past and present dissolve into each other; memory and the personal history of two people is a continuous dimension to our existence in the present tense.
Avram's troubles began when he was captured and tortured by the Egyptians during his own military service in the Yom Kippur war. Later, in a long harrowing section, we learn of Ilan's attempts to get the army to rescue him; the horror of the Yom Kippur war at the edge of the Suez Canal, the burnt bodies, the torture of Israeli prisoners, the whole demented blackened landscape is what Ora and Avram know may be happening to Ofer.
In a novel without any obvious plot, there are continuous surprises as Grossman reveals more and more of the intricate connection between the three characters. Avram is in fact Ofer's father, the child he has never met. During the course of their hike through Israel, Ora tries to educate him about her son, battering through the numbness to make him feel, to know another human being with intimacy.
Ora is, of course a Jewish mother, and in her sick panic for the fate of her child she recounts how the child vegetarian has turned into hardened soldier. When he returns home from leave, she pounces on him, searching for a demilitarised space on his uniformed back, "a place that did not belong to the army, a place for her hand". He looks to her like someone she would meekly give her ID to at a checkpoint. Politicians have nationalised her child.
But escape proves frustratingly difficult. Everywhere they hike, they come across monuments to fallen soldiers. The landscape is not as innocent as it seems, being both the topography of war and of the country's history, Jewish and Arab.
Through the eyes of a terrified mother, albeit one with liberal political views, the land itself seems to be as fragile as her son's life. What if they should lose it, where should they go? What to the outside world looks like the stronger party is a nexus of insecurities. In childhood Ofer has said that he doesn't want to be Jewish: everyone wants to kill them, that's what all the holidays are about.
Gassy superlatives have been heaped on this novel by writers such as Paul Auster and Nicole Krauss. It is tricky to set out the scale of Grossman's achievement without resorting to reviewers' clichés. He has aimed as high as it is possible to do in a novel which deals with the great questions of love, intimacy, war, memory and fear of personal and national annihilation - and has overwhelmingly achieved everything. To the End of the Land will have to be read and re-read to begin to scratch the surface of its ambitions to scrape raw the human heart.
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