In his latest novel, To the End of the Land, Israeli novelist David Grossman encapsulates the magical thinking of a country that could easily not exist.
To the End of the Land, David Grossman’s latest novel, is a long, meandering trek of a book. It takes some getting used to. Yet, this book ranks among the greatest works of modern Israeli literature I have read, and should be required reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unique – some would say impossible – situation in which contemporary Israelis find themselves.
The novel is bookended by war, and war, or memories of war, surface and resurface through its pages. At the book’s opening, Ora, teenage victim of an unnamed illness, is holed up in an eerily abandoned Jerusalem hospital. It soon becomes apparent that the hospital has been emptied because Israel is at war. It is 1967. The Six-Day War has just begun, and the future of the State of Israel (and all of its people) is highly in doubt. Everyone but the most ill has been evacuated.
In a fifty-page introductory section that could easily stand alone as a beautiful, heartbreaking novella, we are introduced to the characters as they are introduced to one another: Avram, the truncated poet and playwright, who, one quickly begins to suspect, is far less clever than he feels himself to be; Ilan, handsome, remote, attractive, invulnerable; and Ora, a beautiful waif of a girl, brimming with realized and unrealized loss. The three teenagers, left for the most part alone and barely aware of their surroundings, fall in love with each other, and with their own remote, impractical futures.
The book picks up decades later. Ora, who now has two mostly grown children, has been married to and is now separated from Ilan. Avram, the victim of another war – he was captured by Egyptians in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and tortured for weeks before being returned to Israel in a prisoner swap – lives alone in Tel Aviv, having nothing to do with his former friends. Ora’s second child, Ofer, has just completed his compulsory military service, a grueling, three-year period every Israeli must undergo, when a new, unnamed skirmish breaks out, and Ofer reenlists. In an act of magical thinking, Ora decides to run away, to leave her house and hike the Israel trail – a sort of Israeli Appalachian Trail, running from the Lebanese border at the very north of the country to Egypt in the south – reasoning that if the army cannot tell her that her son has been killed, then her son cannot die.
Though the bulk of the rest of the novel takes place on this journey (a trip in which Ora has coerced Avram to attend) much of the book is told in flashbacks – of Avram’s imprisonment, of Ora’s pregnancies, of her two sons’ lives. As the two characters physically move forward, they regress into the past, trying to understand how they (and their country) came to be where they are.
At this point I should note that, as he writes in a brief afterward, Grossman wrote this book while his son Uri was in the army, serving compulsory military service. Near the completion of the novel, Uri was killed during a brief operation in Lebanon. Grossman writes: “After we finished sitting shiva [the Jewish mourning period], I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”
That reality, that painful poignancy, is resonant on nearly every page of this heartbreakingly honest novel. There are no heroes here. Ofer, like his brother, is just a child when he goes to serve. At eighteen, he has to stand at checkpoints and frisk Palestinians entering Israel from the occupied territories, in order, as he says, to risk getting blown up so a bar doesn’t get blown up in Tel Aviv.
Perhaps of necessity, this job involves humiliation, dehumanization of the Palestinian other. In a painful argument Ora recalls having with Ofer, she begs him, “I want you to promise me right now that you will never shoot someone to hurt them!” To which Ofer replies: “And if he’s holding a Molotov cocktail? If he has a gun?…D’you want me to lie there and spread my legs for them?”
Ora knows enough of her relationship with her son, and of human nature, not to reply what she actually believes:
[W]hat was really raging in her was not the eyes or the legs of some Palestinian kid, with all due respect, but rather her absolute certainty that Ofer could not hurt a human being, because if that happened, even if there were a thousand justifications, even if the guy was about to detonate an explosive device, Ofer’s life would never be the same. That was it. Quite simply, and irrefutably, he would have no life after that.
It is painful to be an occupier. The Israeli situation, as Grossman (accurately) sees it, however, is far more complex, for Israel is not simply an occupier of lands and people captured in war. Israel is a country that could easily, and quickly, cease to exist. Avram in Egypt, in 1973, is told by his captors that Israel is no more, that the mayors of Haifa and Tel Aviv have been rounded up and shot. And he believes this – because it is possible. When he is returned, and he asks, after a long convalescence in hospital, “Is there still an Israel?” the question is so heartbreaking because it needs an answer.
This book is, to my mind, Grossman’s magnum opus. He has clearly put his whole soul into it. If it plods at times, if it feels overstuffed with content, with circular paths and mistaken trails, that is of necessity. The long slog of waiting, of not knowing whether Ofer is dead or alive, becomes the long slog of the hiking trail, of the seemingly endless inquiries of the past, of the seemingly endless question of where and whether the future will be.