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Mother tries to stay ahead of grief in David Grossman's "To the End of the Land"

By Donna Rifkind
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; C01

TO THE END OF THE LAND

By David Grossman

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Knopf. 576 pp. $26.95

Most of Israel's modern wars appear in David Grossman's latest novel. Its long prologue takes place in 1967 during the Six Day War. Several later scenes occur during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The First Lebanon War in 1982 is here, as are the Palestinian intifadas. And although it doesn't occur in the book, the Second Lebanon War casts a ghostly shadow: In an afterword, Grossman writes that in 2006 his son Uri, an Armored Corps commander just shy of his 21st birthday, was killed with the other members of his tank crew in the final hours of that war, soon after the author had finished an early draft of this novel.

Because the book happens to be about an Israeli woman who flees her Jerusalem home to evade the military notifiers who, she is convinced, will come to inform her of her soldier son's death, Grossman's novel arrives stamped with its own art-meets-life tragedy. It's a situation ripe for sentimentalizing -- a temptation the author has resolutely resisted. After his family finished observing shiva, the traditional Jewish period of mourning, Grossman returned to his novel. As he writes in the afterword, its early incarnation remained more or less intact: "What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written."

The notion of literature as echo, as a re-voicing of reality, is useful for readers of this vast and boundary-pushing novel, which seeks to escape the entrenched ways of thinking about the persistent cycle of fear and death that Israelis call ha-matsav, or "the situation." Grossman's book aims to free itself from the congealed vocabulary of war, which the novel suggests has infused every aspect of Israeli life, in much the same way that the novel's heroine, Ora, hopes to escape notification of her son's death. (In Israel, the book's title is "A Woman Flees the News.") How does Grossman go about creating this echo of reality? Mostly through characterization, by creating beautifully and believably complex portraits of Ora and the men who march fitfully in and out of her life.

In a crisis of anxiety about her younger son, who's just re-enlisted during an emergency call-up after finishing his three years of compulsory service, Ora knows that running away from home is "a meager and pathetic sort of protest" that's no more likely to protect her child than any other form of magical thinking, yet she can't stop herself. Her prickly self-scrutiny is as many-sided and full of conflict as the country she both defends and criticizes. On one hand, she's "not one of those mothers who sends her sons to battle, not part of one of those military dynasties." And she remembers saying acidly to her husband as they gazed at her newborn younger son, "Here you are, my darling, I've made another soldier for the IDF."

But at the same time, when that baby (named Ofer) becomes a little boy and declares he no longer wants to be Jewish because "they always kill us and always hate us," Ora takes him to the Armored Corps installation at Latrun, where he's mollified by a vista of dozens of tanks. And she scorns activist groups like Mothers for Peace, finding "something defiant and annoying and unfair about them and the whole idea, coming to harass soldiers while they worked."

Although recently estranged from her husband and her elder son, Ora is not alone during her flight from home. She has dragged along a man called Avram, who's been a key figure in her life and her husband's for 30 years, beginning in 1967 during the Six Day War, when the three met as teenagers under quarantine for hepatitis. Since then, this trio has conducted an intense triangulated love affair, whose course was forever altered during their army service in the Yom Kippur War, when Avram was captured by the Egyptians and savagely tortured.

Though now a barely functioning ruin of the quicksilver artistic spirit he once was, Avram is as richly imagined a character as Ora. Over several weeks, as they hike through a large portion of the Israel Trail -- a series of footpaths that traverses the entire country from north to south -- they reconsider their personal histories, each eulogizing what was or was not. Ora recounts in charming detail her 20 miraculously unscathed years of family life, when she and her husband and boys were "like a little underground cell in the heart of the 'situation.' " Avram is mostly silent but no less eloquent, his rare smile "like the flicker of a candle in an old, dusty lantern."

Grossman invites us to look beneath the shrill headlines, beyond the roadblocks, within the clenched fist -- to see Israel's predicament not as "the situation" but as many situations, one for every person, here including not just Ora and Avram but also Ora's Palestinian driver, burdened with "the principled and complicated matter of being a gentle human being in this place, in these times." Even the landscape here is layered with complexity, its hiking trails alternatively scrubby and lush, with every inch marked, or so it seems, with monuments for the dead. Time has multiple dimensions here, too, with people yammering on cellphones as if they were "breathing tubes to the outside world," while pages later, a herd of sheep, their bells tinkling, seems as ancient as the Bible.

All these delicate echoes of reality join forces to power this novel, Grossman's most authoritative since his 1989 tour de force, "See Under: Love." (It's further enhanced by Jessica Cohen's brilliantly colloquial translation.) A desperate book that somehow does not cause despair, a book about death that stubbornly insists on life, "To the End of the Land," like all great literature, is an act of generosity, opening itself to every human possibility. As Grossman wrote in an essay in his 2008 collection, "Writing in the Dark," "Books are the place in the world where both the thing and the loss of it can co-exist."

Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.

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