A major trilogy of novels shows how the state of Israel itself grew up, argues Michael Glover
The Zig-Zag Kid

by David Grossman (translated by Betsy Rosenberg)

Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

David Grossman's fiction first appeared in English in 1989, in Betsy Rosenberg's excellent translations from the Hebrew. Anyone reading it will have been fascinated by the extent to which this Israeli novelist, aged 13 when the 1967 war broke out, has been consumed by the perspectives of childhood and of childhood-verging-on-early-manhood. He dwells on those strange, formative, pre-barmitzvah years when childish things are not quite put away, and adulthood has not yet begun; when voices break, limbs elongate, sexuality stirs, and certainties fall away, to be replaced by a maze of unknowing - that terrible time between times.

In See Under: Love (1990), the reader shares the anxieties of Momik about the exact status of a certain mythical animal, spoken of by adults as the Nazi Beast, whose existence can only be mooted in whispers behind closed doors. Does it or does it not exist in the cellar - and how much of a threat is it? In The Book of Intimate Grammar (1994), Grossman brilliantly paints pathetic Proffy, a clever, clumsy boy of 12. As a childish fantasist, Proffy had been a leader, but as maturity approaches, and he becomes aware of the inadequacies of his body - his myopia, his shortness - he begins to retreat into a language and a world of his own.

is set in this same psychological terrain. Just a few days away from his barmitzvah, Nonny is sent by train from Jerusalem to Haifa. He never arrives because he becomes entangled in the snares of an increasingly bewildering joke seemingly perpetrated by his father, a police officer, and his father's girlfriend. Having observed a prisoner changing clothes with a prison officer in his own compartment, Nonny finds a letter telling him that to arrive at the next stage in the game, he must ask "Who am I?" of a passenger in an adjacent compartment.

But a dapper elderly man intervenes, a master of crime and disguise, who leads Nonny through a breakneck sequence of criminal escapades which includes holding up the train. Has he kidnapped the boy? And what has he to tell Nonny about his own past? Being on the run with this strange man proves an extraordinary rite of passage.

Standing back from these three novels, we glimpse a kind of master-project. It involves not only stories about the maturing of boys into men, but also the story of the growth of Israel into a mature and self-sufficient nation - a nation acknowledged to have earned its right to exist beside its Arab neighbours, and which has also learned to speak openly about the Holocaust. Both Proffy and Nonny speak repeatedly about themselves as "spies". At some point, that spy mentality has to be abandoned, and the mask - both threatening and a mark of being threatened - removed.

If only Grossman (and the rest of the world) could believe such things might come to pass with the wholehearted assistance of Benjamin Netanyahu. Until then, alas, we are left with the marvellous consolations of Grossman's strange and tortured fictions.

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