TO THE END OF THE LAND
By David Grossman
Knopf, $26.95, 576 pages
‘To the End of the Land,” Israeli author David Grossman’s latest novel, is a story of parental love in war - and of coping with life’s demands in the absence of explanations for war’s persistence and cost.
Given the author’s well-known peace activism (he regularly demonstrates against the spread of the settlements in the West Bank) and the fact of his youngest son’s death while serving in the Israeli army during the final hours of the second Lebanon war, it is surprising that the book isn’t more bitter or polemical. (In a moving afterword, Mr. Grossman notes that he began writing the book before his son was killed.)
Instead, what readers encounter is the story of Ora, a middle-aged Israeli woman whose youngest son, Ofer, has gone to war. After he leaves, she takes off on a trek of her own, leaving no forwarding address, an intentional attempt to remain unreachable should the “notifiers,” those who deliver news of fallen soldiers to their families, come knocking.
Throughout the book, the tug between the utterly terrifying and the mundane unfolds and persists, beginning most dramatically with the way Ora sends her son to war. She calls for a driver, Sami, an Arab, to take her and Ofer to the meeting point for his battalion.
“She turns back to look at the snake of vehicles, and the scene is almost celebratory, excitable, a huge, colorful parade full of life: parents and brothers and girlfriends, even grandparents, bringing their loved ones to the campaign, the event of the season. In every car sits a young boy, the first fruits, a spring festival that ends with a human sacrifice. And you? she asks herself sharply. Look at you, how neatly and calmly you bring your son here, your almost-only-son, the boy you love dearly, with Ishmael as your private driver.”
Ofer is more focused. “What’s the matter with you?” he whispers into her face. “What if they find an Arab here and think he’s come to commit suicide? And didn’t you think about how he feels having to drive me here? Do you even get what this means for him?”
Throughout the book, Mr. Goodman is at pains to maintain a sense of balance. Palestinians are neither demonized nor depicted as victims. Likewise, Israelis across a political spectrum are not judged. After leaving Ofer, Sami and Ora drive a young and ailing Palestinian boy to a hospital “with a cutout of a seal … with the caption ‘Recon-seal-iation.’ Each of its parts is a conflict that has to be reconciled: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, left wing and right wing, religious and secular.”
For Ora, what is paramount is her house in Beit Zeit and her family, Ofer and his older brother, Adam, and the men in her life, her ex-husband Ilan and her former lover Avram. It is Avram Ora seeks out when she decides to hike the Galilee. Like Scheherazade keeping danger at bay with her tales, Ora will use her time with Avram to tell stories of Ofer at every stage of life: his birth, his first steps, his flirtation with vegetarianism, first love and military service.
Ora’s ties to her son, what she did during his young life to keep him safe, what she is prepared to do in anticipation of his return home and the bonds she forges with those around her go deep and ring true. Writing from the point of view of Ora, Mr. Grossman delivers a convincing portrait of maternal grit and ingenuity in a time and place of relentless challenge.
But the relics of war and war dead are never far. “Above the mountain, above the human tumult a large eagle glides against the blue sky, floating on a warm transparent air column that rises from the valley. … Avram and Ora take pleasure in its flight, and in the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan, glowing purple in the warm vapors and the blue eye of Lake Kinneret, until Ora notices a plaque in memory of Sergeant Roi Dror, of blessed memory, who was killed below this cliff on June 18, 2002, during a training operation of the Duvdevan special forces unit. ‘He fell as gently as a tree falls. There was not even the slightest sound, because of the sand.’ (‘The Little Prince.’)
“Oh Avram, where will this end? Tell me, where will this end? There’s no more room for all the dead.”
In this powerful book, there are surprising answers of a kind, but the ongoing strife goes on.
Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.