In the Ice-Box
Janette Turner Hospital
- The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg
Cape, 343 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 03285 2
If language speaks us, as Lacan claimed, and as Aron – the young protagonist of The Book of Intimate Grammar – senses intuitively, then our thoughts are trapped in hand-me-down forms and even the act of investigating and naming the self is both arbitrary and suspect. A lost language would mean a misplaced self; and indeed, Aron has caught a fleeting and provocative glimpse of a shadow father behind the father he knows, a lithe and animated Papa who is telling a joke in the Polish forbidden by Mama, and who is attached like a vibrant ghost to the sad overweight present-day Papa, the one who protests forlornly: ‘But there are some things I can only say in Polish.’ And if Papa-as-he-used-to-be has been lost in translation, in what voice can Aron’s disturbing ideas about himself, and about the family and the society around him, speak themselves? Clearly he will need to concoct a whole new grammar, private and subversive. But then who will understand his secret syntax?
Such are the dilemmas that torment Aron. They first press down on him at the tender age of 11½, in English class, in the Israel of the mid-Sixties, and become an obsession through the next three years that lead to his bar mitzvah, and then on to the Six-Day War of the nation state within whose syntactical history his life is parcelled and parsed.
The nation, like Aron, is in a state of suspended animation. The War of Independence has already passed into myth, a time as hazily glorious in exploit as Aron’s daredevil childhood. But history speaks Aron and Israel even more inexorably than language does. They are trapped in it. It crushes and paralyses them. Aron does his best to hold the future at bay; he baulks at the barrier of puberty, turning in on himself, but he can keep neither future nor past from throwing shadows across his days: ‘Aron ... wanted to ask his mother and father what they did in the days before the War of Independence, when Yaeli’s mother was out on night raids and fighting Arabs face to face. Gideon told [Yaeli’s mother] he really envied her and her generation for living in that glorious time, and she ruffled his hair and said, Don’t talk nonsense, she hoped to God his generation would never know anything like that glory.’
But it is precisely such ominous glory that skulks around the next corner, waiting for them, and portents (despite his willed indifference to the outer world) keep flitting into Aron’s consciousness and into the novel. His sister goes off into the Army; classes are cancelled to dig trenches; a school friend makes a comment about Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (which finally locates Aron’s stasis more or less precisely in time, Eshkol having been prime minister from 1963 to 1969; the Six-Day War of June 1967 is clearly about to erupt by the novel’s end). Only by living rigorously in the present continuous can Aron shut out his heritage of accumulated horror and solve his problems with language and history.