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To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2010. 592 pp. $26.95.
In To the End of the Land (a translation of Isha borakhat mebesorah, 2008), we encounter David Grossman at his best. This extraordinary novel works its way towards affirmation of being, while acknowledging the vulnerability of attachments and relationships in a volatile world. Grossman captures the inner lives of human beings, situating them amidst the stressors of daily life in an embattled state. And yet while this novel is deeply Israeli, registering the impact of multiple wars over time, Grossman uses the particulars of Israeli life in order to bring out features of intimate relationships that are not limited to national boundaries. As we become absorbed in details of physical and emotional life, we move with Grossman’s characters through memory, time, and space, to find ourselves within a fully realized fictional universe.
In earlier novels, Grossman demonstrated an exquisite attunement to the child’s imaginative universe, marking all the while the vulnerability of that inner life in a social world that may well be indifferent and unresponsive to it. Clearly Grossman writes out of a deep identification with the child’s imaginative excesses and a profound sense of the vicissitudes that put that interior realm at risk. It has been his gift to depict the tensions between the child’s inner life and the world around him. To the End of the Land grows out of Grossman’s earlier work insofar as it demonstrates poignantly the precariousness of the presence of the child within the adult. Put simply, Grossman shows us what happens once the child grows up. And given the conditions of life in Israel, referred to as “hamatzav,” “the situation,” the circumstances into which he puts his adolescent protagonists could not be more severe. In this most recent novel, the 1967 war is the immediate catalyst for the plot, responsible for imposing the opening condition of blackout not only on the adolescent protagonists, but on the reader as well.
To the End of the Land opens with 47 pages of dialogue in the dark among three adolescents, a girl and two boys, hospitalized just as war has broken out. Feverish and dizzy, cut off from all communication, they fear the destruction of Israel at the hands of its Arab foes, as they overhear a Cairo radio station broadcasting in Hebrew. In fact, Grossman imposes on readers the blindness and utter inability to fathom what is going on around them of these three young people. Reading the staccato dialogue of the opening section of this novel is like waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing where you are.
At the same time, the hospital isolation ward is also a fairytale setting where two of the three young people, Avram and Ora, decipher each other’s presence through words. (The third, Ilan, slips in and out of delirium.) In a magical moment, Ora strikes a match to see Avram and to show herself to him. Speaking in the dark, she finds herself able to tell Avram the story of the traumatic loss of a friend. In fits and starts, each of these adolescents is something of a therapeutic presence for the other. Traumatic experience becomes a source of narrative magic, as Grossman builds this opening section out of losses that form the basis for connections through spoken words.
Shifting abruptly to the year 2000 and the adult lives of these childhood friends, Grossman leaves the reader to figure out who’s who and to piece together the events that occurred during their army service in the early 1970s. Only gradually are we able to figure out that Avram, assigned to military intelligence, was captured at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War near the Suez Canal. Bit by bit, we piece together the evidence of the physical and psychological torture to which Avram’s Egyptian captors subjected him for six weeks. Once we figure out who’s who in the present tense of the novel, it is profoundly startling to realize that the adult Avram, deeply traumatized and emotionally withdrawn, was once the youthful fantasist whose verbal flights of fancy appeared to be virtually unstoppable.
Shifting to the year 2000, much of the novel is devoted to an extended hike that Avram and Ora undertake, as if in order to repossess the land in its pre-political existence, or to depoliticize the ground simply by walking on it. Grossman demonstrates the greatest respect for the desire that motivates this impossible undertaking. The hike is about reclaiming a scarred body on several levels, that of the child, the adult, and that of the land—with embodiment on all these levels comprised of histories of appropriation, the often violent imposition of boundaries and borders. In the last line of the novel, Ora wonders at her sense of the land as something like the delicate outer layer or crust (klipah) of a living being, articulating the connection of body to land that subtends the fictional universe. Her comment does not depart from history, but indicates ever so slightly the possibility of altering one’s relationship to traumatic histories, on both the personal and the national levels.
In considering the forms of violence to which bodies are subject, To the End of the Land draws together the threads of an evolving ethics in Grossman’s fiction, grounding the ethical value of mutuality in recognition of the embodied selfhood of the other. The novel thus explores the potential for working out a post-political or post-traumatic relationship to land and body, in the sense of resisting the linear narrative of the political record and the determinism of personal histories. The difficulty or even impossibility of the effort to bypass or evade politics in the present corresponds in some sense to the impossibility of ever fully undoing the traumatic histories that inscribe the bodies of the novel’s adult protagonists.
One feels acutely in Grossman’s work a certain despair at large-scale political efforts to resolve territorial conflicts and a consequent turn to the personal as a pathway to finding common ground. To the End of the Land traces the historical scarring that marks individuals, families, and relationships, the scarring that is specific to life in Israel, to the experience of successive wars and the losses they bring. We cannot, of course, fail to notice that Grossman lost his younger son, Uri, in a tank incident in Lebanon, during the time in which he was writing this novel. (In a poignant afterword, Grossman recalls the weekly phone calls, during which Uri would ask him how the characters were doing.) In interviews, he has described returning to the novel as soon as the shiva, the days of mourning for his son, ended. My sense is that loss is inscribed so deeply in this novel as to infuse the narrative with an extraordinary awareness of the value of human connection.
Acknowledging the brutality of politics and war, To the End of the Land looks to ordinary speech as the medium through which broken links might be restored, indicating the value of connection on all levels, including the author’s communication with his readers. Jessica Cohen’s excellent translation loses none of the intimacy of tone and texture that have engaged readers of the Hebrew original. Cohen captures beautifully the flow of colloquial speech, the associative shifts within the minds of the characters, and also the details of the blooming landscape of northern Israel through which Avram and Ora find their way. For the space of our reading, we inhabit the fully realized world of this novel and can only feel gratitude to its author for sharing it with us.
Anne Golomb Hoffman