- Death as a Way of Life: Dispatches from Jerusalem by David Grossman
Bloomsbury, 179 pp, £8.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 7475 6619 4
- Someone to Run With by David Grossman
Bloomsbury, 374 pp, £7.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 7475 6812 X
In David Grossman’s 1998 novel, Be My Knife, an antiquarian book-dealer starts a passionate correspondence with a woman whom he has barely caught sight of across a room. The unlikely circumstances of their relationship, its unusual fusion of intimacy and distance, allow them to say, or rather write, things which neither of them has ever admitted before. Lost to each other and themselves, mostly they seem out of touch with the world. But just occasionally you get a glimpse of how each one’s peculiar and cherished form of insanity might be inseparable from the nation that spawned their virtual love affair. ‘Somewhere in the universe,’ Yair muses in one of his letters, ‘there must be that other world we once talked about – a world of light.’ But some people, ‘unfit for such generous bounty and goodness’, would find a world like that intolerable and commit suicide. ‘Here, where we are,’ he asks – ‘is this the penal colony of that other world?’ Perhaps every person here, ‘man or woman, it doesn’t matter, old or young’, has already committed suicide.
For nearly two decades, Grossman has been turning over in his mind the possibility that Israel, miraculous nation as it likes to see itself, might in fact be a moribund state. ‘In order to maintain culture, and especially in order to maintain democracy,’ he said in a recent discussion with Amos Oz, ‘a certain type of illusion is needed,’ and in Israel today, the layer of culture has disintegrated ‘that makes possible the illusions that are needed to maintain a more or less tolerable fabric of life’. To believe in yourself and your world is an illusion, although it’s one we need in order to carry on our daily lives. For Grossman it crumbles definitively the moment you witness flesh tear. From then on, what you fear, or should fear, most is not that your life might at any time be violently ended – a fear now real for every citizen in a nation that was meant to make the Jewish people safe – but that you have already died. ‘An entire nation,’ he writes in Death as a Way of Life, ‘is in a coma.’ ‘Six million people have allowed their mind, their will, their judgment to degenerate into infuriating criminal passivity.’ ‘When we emerge from the cocoon that encloses us, it is liable to be too late.’ Grossman’s writing is an answer to all those who argue that it is too easy to criticise Israel from the outside: from the country’s most contested, holiest city, he puts the failing of a nation on record – Israel as a failed state.
Grossman’s fiction is full of figures who could be described as living a death in life. In his most famous novel, See under: Love (1989), the boy Momik, desperately trying to redeem his family’s silence about the Holocaust, creates in his mind the story of his grandfather Wasserman, who survived the camps and shows up at the family home in Israel having been presumed dead for years. In Momik’s fantasy re-creation, Wasserman becomes the protégé of the camp commandant, Neigel, after it is discovered that he cannot die. He agrees to tell Neigel stories, fulfilling the Nazi’s deepest and secret desire, but on condition that Neigel attempts, each and every time, to kill him. The story Wasserman then tells is the tale of Kazik, a miracle child discovered by an elderly and barren couple, who ages in accelerated time; he is a withered old man when he dies at 22 hours. The miracle child dies too soon. The grandfather cannot die, although, having witnessed the killing of his daughter in the camp, death is all he longs for.
Wanting to die because you have suffered too much is one thing. But what to make of a nation – and it is impossible not to read the story of Kazik as an allegory of the birth and growth of Israel – that cannot save its own child? At the end of Be My Knife, Miriam breaks her agreement with Yair, and rushes to his house when, in an unexpected phone call, he starts explaining to her that he’s had an argument with his son, that the boy is slowly freezing outside in the rain, and that he must break the boy’s will (it is unclear at the end of the novel whether either the son or the father has survived). Israel has always seen itself as engaged in a struggle for survival – that is its raison d’être. Against the dominant rhetoric, Grossman presents us with a nation that appears – from its violent, stubborn, self-defeating behaviour – to be hell-bent on destroying itself.
No nation, no democracy can live without illusions. If Grossman is right in the link he makes between the state’s ills and those of its children, it is to Israel’s youth – its pride – that we should look for the cracks in the surface and the sickening of the soul. As I write, five teenage refuseniks have been jailed for a year by the Jaffa military court. It is because they aired their disillusionment so loudly that they became the first refuseniks to be court-martialled (all the others had been given administrative sentences or freed). But those who serve, and then talk, also puncture the illusion of civilised life. ‘I was carried away by the possibility of acting in the most primal and impulsive manner,’ Staff Sergeant Liran Ron Furer says of his experience in Gaza in his book Checkpoint Syndrome. ‘Over time the behaviour . . . became normative . . . without fear of punishment and without oversight . . . a place to test our personal limits – how tough, how callous, how crazy we could be.’ A group of ‘good boys’ (he insists), barely out of college, goes wild. Furer became a sadist. Without anything ever being stated, he feels that was what was expected. But no one wants to admit to it; no one wants to see (it was only with great difficulty that he succeeded in getting his book published in Israel last year). ‘Perhaps the Palestinian tragedy,’ Grossman writes in an open letter to a Palestinian friend at the outbreak of the second intifada, is that ‘you are facing a tough and complicated partner (one convinced it is the meekest, most malleable, most merciful partner there is).’ In that parenthesis he takes Israel’s self-image apart. Beware of a people that boasts its own virtue. As far back as Yellow Wind, a collection of interviews with Palestinians published in 1988, Grossman was already wondering ‘how much one must be suspicious of people who testify about themselves morning and night that they are merciful.’ Nations, like individuals – and Israel is hardly alone in this – cannot bear to think of themselves as anything other than what they ideally would like to be.
Writing to Theodor Herzl in 1899, the French socialist Bernard-Lazare complained that, because Herzl so wanted his people to become a perfect nation, modelled on the countries of Western Europe, he could not bear to admit, or include in his vision, the abject, impoverished reality of the Eastern European Jew. For Bernard-Lazare such idealisation was a form of treachery for which the new nation-state, if it ever came into being, would pay a heavy price. Grossman does not, I suspect, share Bernard-Lazare’s anarcho-revolutionary politics, but he carries something of his legacy in the truth-telling for which he makes his plea. ‘Your ultimate objective,’ Bernard-Lazare wrote to Herzl, ‘is "not to display our national shames". But I am all for displaying them. We die from hiding our shames . . . We must educate our nation by showing it what it is.’ ‘We need to live a life,’ Grossman writes, ‘that is not ideal, not demonic.’
Although he has just spent seven months involved in the negotiations leading up to the Geneva Accord, for which he wrote the introduction to the Hebrew version, it seems significant that Grossman has put together this collection of his essays at a moment when, as he sees it, hope has died and he is on the edge of despair (‘something in me is dying’, ‘there is no hope’). It’s as if, against his best, or rather worst, judgment, he still believes that Israel only has to look into its own depths to be saved. Like a psychoanalyst, he has set himself up as a doctor of the nation’s soul; his vocabulary is full of words such as ‘denial’ and ‘repress’. The average Israeli shuts his mind to all the things he most needs to know. He has no idea of the ‘depths of Palestinian humiliation and suffering’ caused by Israel’s actions in the Territories. Ignorant of the details, he wrongly believes that Oslo offered the Palestinians a viable state. When Rabin speaks of wanting peace, ‘the impression is growing stronger,’ Grossman writes in 1995, two years after Oslo, that he ‘really means an expanded security arrangement that will fence the Palestinians into autonomous areas of confinement, surrounded and separated from one another by a dense network of Israeli roads, roadblocks and settlements’. (In the same essay he predicts a renewed intifada in the ‘strangled, despairing "territories", this time with violence we have not yet seen’.) The Israeli cuts himself off from the Arabs who are living, with their own claim to identity, in his midst. Sleeping on a Wire, which Grossman published in 1993, consisted of a set of conversations with Palestinians in Israel: ‘The Jews don’t know enough about us. They don’t even want to know that there is another nation here.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.