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Book Review: Grossman's To the End of the Land

This is the sixth in a series of reviews of new books on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, to review David Grossman's heart-wrenching novel about the emotional toll of the conflict.


David Grossman, To the End of the Land, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Vintage International, 2010). 651 pages. $15.95

To the End of the Land is a love story wrapped in an elegy for Israel. The narrative of Ora, Avram, Ilan, Adam and Ofer, of their losses and betrayals, of the gradual eroding of their youthful joy and passion, hope and ambition, is the narrative of Israel in all its harsh reality and tender beauty. It is the story of the inevitable interface between the particular and universal, and of how conflict erodes the soul of a man and a nation. Israel is the protagonist here, and as Grossman unfolds the history of his characters, he charts the inevitability of pain and madness in a world encased in war and the threat of war.

A brilliant stylist whose lyric language and sardonic humor capture the nexus of past and present, sensual and cerebral, Grossman's voice never is far from the voices of his central characters, Ora and Avram. Grossman's is Ora's love for her beautiful son Ofer, her denial, her pain and confusion as she is caught between two complex truths--that of Israelis and that of the Palestinians; his is Avram's glorious delight in words, imaginative word-play and deconstructionism, his tenderness, broken spirit, disillusionment and alienation.

When we first meet Ora and her subsequent lovers, the soul-friends Avram and Ilan, they are teenagers inhabiting a world of emptiness, loss, disease, death, and dreamlike experiences that straddle illusion and reality, cocooned in darkness accompanied only by the incessant wailing of an anonymous Arab nurse. The relationships that inform the subsequent narrative are first forged in this context, especially the unique spiritual bonding between Avram and Ora, and theirs' with the ghostly Ilan, who will become Ora's erstwhile husband and father to their two sons, Adam and Ofer--the latter, we subsequently learn, the child born of Ora's resolve to reawaken Avram's dormant sexuality. From the very first, Avram, who increasingly will take center stage, is captivated by and unable to resist the mercurial Ora, though he is helpless to understand her. Ilan is silent and elusive, and as the reader will come to know, does not emerge as more than the husband and father Ora memorializes until the very end of the novel, when Grossman at last exposes the mystery at the heart of the narrative: how it is that Ilan and Avram endured crucially different military action.  Behind this mystery is Ora, ignorant of military life and the seductiveness of battle and brotherhood in arms, the inadvertent cause of Ilan and Avram's deployments. As she is the lodestone for each male character, so is she the symbol of those whose ignorance of war results in the brutality experienced by both men. The underlying magical thinking, the notion that thoughts, hopes, fears, ignorance can effect, even determine outcomes that is at the heart of Ilan and Avram's war also is the driving force informing Avram and Ora's journey to the end of the land.

When we again meet adult Ora, unconvinced that men can tell the difference between war and games, she is bereft of Ilan, Adam, and home, and is about to rudely discover that her beloved Ofer has been seduced by the cult and camaraderie of the warrior. Fleeing her home so as not to be able to receive news of Ofer while he is engaged in a military action, she enlists her old lover Avram in her determination to flee reality by walking the land of Israel.  Unknown to his father Avram until he and Ora embark on their journey, Ofer is the catalyst for their co-conspiracy to keep the boy safe by conjuring him through Ora's memories and observations. Literally and figuratively, step by step, as Ora fleshes out the son Avram has never known, the boy comes alive for Avram who, once he is embraces the reality of his son, is as loath as Ora to let the boy sink into non-being. As the boy lives in memory, and only is known through memory, as he lives through his mother's stories about him and only is known through those stories, so Grossman keeps alive the hope that life will be preserved through stories, through memory and above all, through denial.

Each man's story emerges in Ora's telling and Grossman's lucid descriptions, whether of the land through which the two journey, or of Avram's battered body and broken mind, the legacies of Egyptian torture and Israeli intelligence. Into this mix, Grossman introduces a personification of Palestine in the resigned, ironic, and inexpressively angry taxi driver Sami, who somehow within all the chaos remains a "free person," able to avoid attributing the daily humiliations of the Occupation to some defect of his own. The episodes involving Ora, Ofer, Sami and finally, Avram, illustrate the impossibility of friendship between oppressor and oppressed, as well as the inter-dependency of two peoples locked into a grudging appeal to a common humanity that can briefly flare within the dark underbelly of murderous hatred and mistrust. Ora's anger at both Israelis and Arabs, first explored in the breakdown of her relationship with Sami, later is captured in a compelling vignette as she angrily chops vegetables for Ofer's salad while struggling with his military toughness and indifference.

There is about this book an atmosphere so fraught with the known, the yet to be known, the unknown and the unknowable, it is impossible to entirely encapsulate the author's intentions, so integrated are the layers of meaning.  Even the most matter-of-fact reference seems a pointer to the larger context, while remaining deeply personalized.  Thus, whether the reference is to Avram's torture or to Ofer at the call-up, to Sami at home or to Ilan's desertion of Ora and Adam, bit by bit the whole fabric of Israel--Jewish and Arab, secular and orthodox, whole and broken Israel--emerges.

At the same time, the novel is the story of the mother's inevitable loss of her son.  As Joseph Campbell so persuasively demonstrated in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a boy can only become a man by leaving his mother.  In this case, that inevitable loss is conflated with war. How significant that as Ora is losing and potentially will lose Ofer forever, he is being claimed by his father, Avram. A man who endured and survived Egyptian torture cannot bear the torture of Ora talking about Ofer, but paradoxically, she can only hold onto Ofer and keep him alive by offering him to his father.  For the always abandoned Ora, it is the broken, cynical, sensual, cerebral Avram who is Ofer's salvation; according to Ora's blithe self-deception, Avram's acceptance of his son guarantees Ofer's life.

In sum, To the End of the Land is a narrative of time and memory. The novel reveals Grossman as a master at revealing the pain of war and the toll it takes on one's humanity. With the landscape of Israel as the ever-present protagonist, he gives us the elusive Ilan, robotic Adam, alienated Avram, eternally deceived Ora, and increasingly unreachable Ofer, each the object of war's destruction.  Is this tour de force of subtle and vivid language, of wit and insight into the universal human agonies of love and war a journey to despair or to reconciliation? 

For Grossman, as for all those who crave an end to the never ending cycle of fear and mistrust, and their inevitable spawn, wars that claim generation after generation of Palestinian and Israeli boys and girls, the hope must be to preserve Ofer's humanity and to spare Ora's pain - and that of every Israeli and Palestinian mother. This testimony to the cycle of suffering visited on sons and daughters, parents and lovers, siblings and friends, is, at last, the author's anguished plea for peace and reconciliation.