To the End of the Land, by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Jonathan Cape RRP£18.99, 582 pages
David Grossman’s latest novel is being presented by the publishers as Israel’s War and Peace, with a female heroine as complex and finely drawn as Emma Bovary. These are very bold claims. The book is composed principally as the stream of consciousness of Ora, a middle-aged mother of two young men by different fathers. One, Ilan, has recently deserted her, taking their son, Adam.
Her younger son, Ofer, had promised to join her on a long walk in Galilee, but now to her dismay he has volunteered to go to Lebanon, although he has completed his military service. She had high hopes of the walking tour with Ofer: “One week alone, the two of us, in Galilee, the nightmare is over, no more sleeping pills. But … ”
Ora can’t get over the sense that all their lives are deformed by Israel’s wars: from her first meeting with the principal men in her life, Avram and Ilan, in 1967, to her sons’ military service. The good-looking, lithe Ilan, and the chubby, would-be writer Avram, are, with Ofer, the axes both of her life and of this expansive, claustrophobic novel, lived inside her head for almost 600 pages. Now, in 2006, she is finding it almost impossible to cope with life in Israel: “It grows and swells and threatens to burst: her stupidity, her failure in the principled and complicated matter of being a gentle human being in this place, in these times.”
The crucial prologue establishes how, during the Six Day War of 1967, Ora, Avram and Ilan all meet in an isolation hospital, suffering from fever, wavering in and out of consciousness. Avram tries to woo Ora, but also feels compelled to introduce her to the good-looking Ilan as they stumble about, almost forgotten, in the darkened hospital, believing that the Arabs have taken Tel Aviv and are marching on Jerusalem. This nightmarish experience has formed a bond between them which is almost mystical. It is certainly destructive.
Nearly 40 years on, Ora is compelled to take Ofer to his regiment’s muster point, driven by their faithful Arab taxi driver Sami, who – she realises too late – is affronted by being obliged to drive her son in uniform to meet his comrades-in-arms, who are about to attack Hezbollah. Ora’s divided sensibilities are raw: she is deeply ashamed of dishonouring Sami; and she feels abandoned by both Ilan and Ofer.
Because we know that Grossman’s son died in this conflict, the day before demobilisation, we are acutely aware that the intensity of Ora’s feelings is not simply art. We soon see that Grossman is attempting to write the great Israeli novel, the play of big events on personal lives, the minutiae, texture, preoccupations, fears and prejudices of an unnatural society, surrounded by people who hate it irrationally.
Ora decides she must go on the walk anyway. She believes that she will be protecting Ofer with a kind of preventative magic, as she will not be home should anyone arrive with bad news. She then decides to drag Avram on this walk. Avram was captured and tortured by the Egyptians in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, and his life since has been a psychological and physical nightmare.
She persuades him to come to Galilee, determined to tell him every detail of her life, from her most intimate maternal feelings to the appearance and temperament of Ofer, his son. They walk for days in Northern Israel as Ora starts to peel back the charred skin covering the wounds and misunderstandings of the past. She particularly wants Avram to feel for the son he has barely seen, and she wants him to remember everything that has happened to them, echoing Primo Levi saying that “the memories which lie within us are not carved in stone”.
Ora’s observations are often moving and sharp, but can also be repetitive and banal. The poor translation doesn’t help. The improbability of Avram stumbling along silently as he is assailed by Ora’s memories and her evocation in detail of Ofer and Ilan, becomes oppressive. Oddly, in this monologue, we occasionally get Avram or Ilan’s point of view, but never any alleviating Joycean irony or humour.
Ora herself sums up the problem with the whole book: “If I’d only kept my big mouth shut, I might still have a family today … there are some situations, some issues, that it’s better to keep quiet about … You don’t have to pour out a live broadcast of your whole stream on consciousness, right?”
For all that, this is a deeply serious, utterly honest work about the state of Israel. And because of this I am sure that many will take it for a great novel.
Justin Cartwright is the author of ‘The Song Before it is Sung’ (Bloomsbury)