- 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.’
Worse than all this, and all this is bad enough, the Israeli refuses introspection, dreading the ‘disconcerting and menacing emotions’ it might provoke. Crucially, the threat is as much political as psychological – though in this world the two add up to the same thing. Grossman is not calling for some indulgent, if painful, stroking of the national mind. Introspection is not an alternative to justice, but its precondition. ‘People listened to the victim and they listened to the politicians,’ Staff Sergeant Furer writes, ‘but this voice that says: I did this, we did things that were wrong – crimes, actually – that’s a voice I didn’t hear.’ The reservists who police the West Bank, Grossman observed in 1988, have a ‘special expression and build: something which projects an unconscious detachment of the man from himself’.
Grossman paints a picture of a world in denial, dissociated, floating in its own fears. Why did Netanyahu’s government so often behave as if it were a ‘persecuted minority group’, as if ‘it did not really believe in its own legitimacy’? Sharon’s national unity government of 2001, Grossman wrote at the time, will cobble together a compromise ‘with no connection to reality’ and offer it to the Palestinians: ‘Israel will again conduct virtual negotiations between itself and itself, between itself and its fears.’ Grossman never underestimates Israel’s terrible legacy of fear, but it isn’t, for him, the great silencer and riposte to any critique. Fear is not an endgame: it opens a box. Where does this legacy lead? Grossman uncovers the wounds of the Jewish psyche to reveal scar tissue which, as it hardens, will not let the nation breathe.
Spanning the decade since Oslo, many of the essays in Death as a Way of Life are devoted to charting the rise to power of Israel’s current leader, elected and re-elected, Grossman suggests, partly because he exudes power: ‘Put a toga on him and he will look like a Roman emperor . . . (that image, with its very potent instincts and its brutality and its history, apparently has something that appeals to people).’ In December 2001, in response to a suicide bomb, Sharon broke off negotiations with Arafat, whose compound was under siege in Ramallah, and sent planes into the West Bank. In his essay on this strategy, which, like everything Sharon thinks up, Grossman situates somewhere between the ‘grotesque and the catastrophic’, he cites a study published in Nature about ‘a dangerous mechanism in the human visual system’ that allows the brain to refuse to register what the eyes clearly see: ‘From the moment the brain decides in favour of a given interpretation of the images it is receiving from the eyes, all stimuli that support any other interpretation simply disappear.’ Arafat is being ‘blotted out’, which means that ‘the Palestinian people had also been blotted out, along with their justified desires and aspirations’ (for this process Baruch Kimmerling of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has coined the term ‘politicide’). Sharon is blinding himself – a way of acknowledging, perhaps, that he is, like Oedipus, the perpetrator of a dreadful crime. ‘War and violence have blinded our eyes, and have turned some of us into killers, and many others of us into tacit collaborators with murderers.’
‘Except for a small number of Israelis (most recently David Grossman),’ Edward Said wrote in the Nation in February 2002, ‘no one comes out and says openly that the Palestinians are being persecuted by Israel.’ Grossman has never hesitated in condemning the Occupation as ‘deformed, immoral, unjust’. There is no mincing of words. It is his particular talent to be able to do this at the same time as he acknowledges the flush of pleasure of the young Israeli, even one who has demonstrated against the Occupation, when he first receives his call-up papers. (In the same spirit he evokes the erotic charge of walking into and taking over another people’s land: ‘The sudden penetration and the breaking of the taboo . . . I absolutely remember the physical sensation, the sensation of power.’) You can, he seems to be saying, detach yourself from your own excitement. But it is not easy. Grossman has never underestimated what the internal critic or dissenter is up against. ‘In Israel, the reality is that it is easier for a man to change religion, and maybe even his sex,’ he observed in Yellow Wind, ‘than to change in any decisive way his political opinions.’ In his summing up at the trial of the five refuseniks at the Jaffa military court in December, the prosecutor called them ‘ideological criminals’ – ‘the worst kind’: ‘The fact that they are idealistic people and in many ways positive characters should be counted against them.’
Some of Grossman’s most powerful indictments of current policy slip out almost as asides. The concept of a ‘ticking bomb’, used by the army to justify its policy of targeted assassinations, should apply, he says in passing, only when someone is on the way to an attack (instead of which, anyone suspected of having planned or of planning attacks, along with any surrounding civilians, is now seen as a legitimate target). As I write, the group Anarchists against the Wall are enjoying an unwelcome notoriety after one of them shouted out, ‘Don’t shoot – we’re Israelis,’ before being shot at and seriously injured by the IDF. By implying that it is all right to shoot Palestinians (an im-plication the anarchists fervently deny) – by exposing the fact that the army discriminates, although not always successfully, between ‘blood and blood’ – that shocking cry has provoked a crisis of truth.
These essays tell the story of a disaster. By the time we get to the end, Israel is ‘more militant, nationalist, racist than ever before’. What kind of victory – since Israel could be said to be beating the Palestinians – leaves a country ‘worse off than it has been for the last 35 years’ (security, economy, national morale all in decline)? What kind of victory leaves a quarter of Palestinians suffering from malnutrition and increasing numbers of children reported as risking their lives to slip across the Green Line to become beggars inside Israel? At the end of Yellow Wind, Grossman asked one ‘last question’ which could just as well serve as a coda to the essays collected here: ‘Is the feeling that the situation cannot possibly continue for ever any guarantee that it will eventually change?’
But Grossman does not simply condemn his own nation (there would be something wrong if he did). He is clearly appalled by Arafat, and sees the two leaders as locked in the phantom of their own militancy. While the charges against Israel become louder as the essays progress, the balance of judgment almost imperceptibly shifts. After the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, far more atrocities against Israel are listed in the opening notes to the essays than the other way round. The lynching of the two army reservists who lost their way near Ramallah in October 2000 is presented, in Grossman’s discussion with Oz, as the breaking point ‘for all of us’. One of Grossman’s greatest talents is his precision, the extraordinary lengths he goes to to give the other side its voice – both Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire are dedicated to that. His account of the expulsion of the Hebron cave-dwellers in December 1999 opens with Mahmoud Hamamdeh: ‘I was born here in this cave.’ Then the language becomes more vague: the Palestinians responded to Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount with an ‘outbreak of unrestrained violence’; ‘the riots that erupted the next day resulted in many deaths. The wave of violence that spread throughout the West Bank and Gaza was met with overwhelming force by Israeli security forces.’ Whose deaths? Were the rioters armed? ‘Wave of violence’ lacks an agent, leaves us in the dark. By April 2002 it is the Palestinians who have ‘brought about the current intolerable escalation. It is the outcome of their choice to use the weapon of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.’
You can condemn the bombings as criminal and counterproductive, as indeed many Palestinians also have, but still note that something in the tone gives way (another proof, if any were needed, that the bombings sap the moral ground of the Palestinians or, in Grossman’s expression, ‘boomerang’). Compare this from 1997, after the first suicide bombing but before the strategy had taken hold: ‘Today it is hard to speak of the Palestinians having any hope. The majority of Israelis do not realise the depth of Palestinian despair . . . caused by Israeli government policies. Under these circumstances, it is now clear, Israeli lives will be as intolerable as Palestinian lives.’ Or this from 1998:
The Israeli eye is already trained to skip over the small items in the newspaper: the Palestinian babies dying at roadblocks, the children fainting from thirst in the refugee camps because Israeli officials control the water supply, thousands of families whose homes are bulldozed on the grounds of being ‘illegal construction’. Who can face up to all this nauseating detail? Who can acknowledge that this is actually happening. That it is really happening to us?
None of this has changed. If anything it is getting worse, as the pioneering Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy, among others, never ceases to stress. These words from an article written by Levy last December could almost have been written by Grossman:
The suicide bomber at the Geha Junction was from Beit Furik, one of the most imprisoned villages in the Territories that is surrounded by . . . roadblocks on all sides . . . At least one woman in labour, Rula Ashatiya, gave birth at the Beit Furik checkpoint and lost her infant. Few Israelis are capable of imagining what life is like in Beit Furik . . . Israelis have little interest in knowing the lie of the land from which terror springs . . . Israel counted ‘81 days of quiet’ . . . But there is no greater lie than this. The quiet was only here. During this ‘quiet’, dozens of Palestinians were killed, and almost no one bothered to report it . . . There is . . . an Israeli price for the many concealed Palestinian dead.
So what has changed for Grossman? Perhaps he feels that his writing has failed: that a decade painstakingly and boldly pointing all this out has had precisely no effect on his readers. ‘I know very well why I joined the Geneva initiative: because I feel that every day that passes without change pushes Israel another centimetre towards the abyss.’
Critics of the Geneva Accord stress that the Palestinians have given up the refugees’ right of return while Israel has taken no responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem (as Ilan Pappe has pointed out in this journal, it also leaves the Palestinians with only 15 per cent of their original land). More cynically, some have argued that the only difference between the Accord and Sharon’s aim of unilateral withdrawal and de facto annexation of the Territories is that the Palestinians are being given the opportunity to agree to the plan. The Accord has also been criticised for giving legitimacy to the Zionist character of the state. But, as Salim Tamari has pointed out, this is not quite right. Geneva does not give legitimacy to Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish people’: it speaks of ‘the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood’, without prejudice to the ‘equal rights of the parties’ respective citizens’ (an awkward echo of Balfour, as Tamari also observes, which referred to the civil and religious but not the political rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’).
In Sleeping on a Wire, an Arab Israeli, Mohammed Kiwan, and a Moroccan Jew, Jojo Abtubal, argue this one out. Kiwan wants autonomy – a canton even – inside the Jewish state. Abtubal is appalled: ‘He doesn’t really mean it. He wants security. He wants a way to defend himself. That’s what he means when he asks for a canton. He actually wants a lot less than that – equality.’ This is 1993, and the quarrel is taking place against the backdrop of the two-state solution. (The solution Geneva also advocates.) But what this remarkable dialogue makes clear is that the issue of minority status contains within it the question of a binational state: ‘Jojo would never give up Israel as the Jewish state. Mohammed would never retreat from his goal of full equal rights with Jojo – that is, that Israel be "a country of its citizens” and "not the country of the Jewish people".’ Kiwan, we could say, is trying to make Abtubal a post-Zionist before post-Zionism: ‘Understand one thing,’ he expostulates, ‘that the minute we repeal all the privileges Jews get here, this country will stop being a Jewish country and will become the country of the people who live in it.’ ‘Have I ever,’ Grossman asks in the middle of this semi-comic encounter, ‘imagined, down to the smallest living detail, a truly democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian way of life in Israel?’
Today the case for binationalism is increasingly being heard – it was the solution Edward Said finally desired. If it provokes virulent detraction, it also has some unlikely supporters inside Israel of whom we hear far less in the West. One of them is the writer Daniel Gavron, whose book The Other Side of Despair: Jews and Arabs in the Promised Land appeared in Israel last November. For Gavron, who calls himself a ‘mainstream, orthodox Labour Zionist’, such a vision follows logically from the multiethnic character of the ancient world: ‘King David, if the Bible is to be believed, conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and then shared the city with them. He made use of Canaanite officials, had a Hittite general, enjoyed good relations with the Phoenicians, and (after some bloody conflicts with them) deployed Philistine units in his army, the Cherethites and Pelethites.’ And although he wants something like this to happen now, while the Jews are still in the majority and have the upper hand, he is dismissive of demographic fears: ‘I don’t see a situation in which suddenly in twenty years, the Arabs have got 61 members of the Knesset, we’ve only got 59, and then they will turn round and slaughter us in our beds.’
For Grossman today, this no longer appears to be even a possibility: ‘The Jewish majority’s explicit desire to retain its numerical superiority is one that, when it comes down to it, beats in the heart of every nation . . . I don’t want to be part of a Jewish minority in Israel.’ This is, he acknowledges, ‘an unresolved discrepancy’ in the democracy the Jewish people desire. Because of the threat it poses to the irrevocably Jewish nature of the state, Palestinian right of return is Grossman’s cut-off point – ‘Point of No Return’ is the title of the January 2001 essay from which I have been quoting. ‘We must,’ he says at the end, try ‘to achieve a partial justice for both sides’. We could retranslate: justice is partial. Even if justice is on your side – that is, on the side of the Palestinians, as it so clearly is under international law – you cannot have it, because it will destroy my dream. That the dream is falling apart or steadily fading, as these essays demonstrate, makes it more not less potent. Israel was a ‘marvel and an opportunity’; Israelis today are living on the ‘sidetrack of the life that was meant for us’; they need to be reminded of ‘what they once were’. ‘Are there any Israelis today living the life they want to live?’ It’s as if the country had been temporarily diverted from its path – ‘this storm . . . sends our compasses awry’ – as if violence were a distraction, rather than intrinsic to the creation of Israel as a nation-state, as Grossman was one of the first to acknowledge.
Yet, at other moments, the failing is still endemic: it seems ‘as if we Israelis are doomed to make this error by our very nature’ (he is talking of Lebanon). ‘We are caught in the spiral of violence into which we were born.’ On the walls of Momik’s bedroom in See under: Love, hang a portrait of David Ben-Gurion and a picture of ‘vultures with their wings spread like steel birds boldly defending the nation’s skies’. Across the terrain of the nation, the mind shifts and cannot settle. As a writer, Grossman always has the courage of his own ambivalence. In Israel, we could say, the mind does not know its own place: ‘In the Diaspora, we decided we were a people of time. An eternal people. But,’ he continues in his discussion with Oz, ‘even after we came to this place, we were still unable to crystallise for ourselves a feeling of identity as a people of place.’
But what form should, or can, such an identity take? To say Grossman loves Israel is an understatement – these essays often read like the love letters of a man pleading with a lover who has dreadfully betrayed him to think again (Yair and Miriam several years down the line). But belonging is something else. Grossman could almost be described as Isaac Deutscher’s ‘non-Jewish Jew’. When he does feel a sense of Jewish identity, it seems as if it has taken him by surprise. Every Tuesday he meets with his study group, or hevruta, to discuss the Bible, the Talmud, Kafka and Agnon: ‘In the midst of confusion and the loss that surrounds me, I unexpectedly feel I belong’ (he is the ‘non-religious of the three’). When he visits the 26 annexed Palestinian villages of Jerusalem, endowed by the governments who seized them ‘with the sanctity of biblical Zion’, he feels nothing. In 1993, as he travels across a bare stretch of countryside where there is neither a Jewish nor an Arab village to be seen, ‘I had a strange urge to peel this land of its names and designations and descriptions and dates, Israel, Palestine, Zion, 1897, 1929, 1936, 1948, 1967, 1987, the Jewish State, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the Land of Splendour, the Zionist entity, Palestine.’ Could there be a little piece of earth that is ‘still free of meaning’? What would remain? In this euphoric moment, Grossman strips the land of its overburdened significance. Too much naming, like too much conviction, can kill. At the end of his latest novel, Someone to Run With, a group of thugs discover the cave where the heroine, Tamar, is nursing her brother back from his drug addiction. ‘The Temple Mount is ours,’ one of them screams as he attempts to seize them. ‘Now let’s take care of Abraham’s tomb.’
In Jewish history, however, language has cut both ways. The peril of resurgent anti-semitism, for Grossman, is that the Jew is being made to revert into a symbol of himself. ‘The Jew who came to the Land of Israel and built a state in order to connect . . . with a concrete existence,’ Grossman says in the discussion with Oz, ‘has suddenly again become a symbol of something else. After all, the Jew was always a kind of metaphor . . . he was never perceived as the thing itself.’ This threat is existential, but there is also damage to the Jewish mind. A numbing sense of sacrificial destiny returns and shuts out the world: ‘The tragic feelings of Jewish destiny seem to be closing in on us again’ (in London last year, Grossman described the Jewish sense of victimhood as a ‘temptation’). The collective clings hard and fast to itself. In Israel of all places – intended to restore ‘us to the practical, the human, the historical’ – Jewish life is failing to become mundane. ‘It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically burdened land,’ Freud wrote to Chaim Koffler of the Jewish Agency in 1930. ‘I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic.’
Grossman is a universalist. In Death as a Way of Life, remarks such as the following – which go against the grain of a central strand of Jewish thinking – are thrown out almost casually: ‘I don’t belong to those who believe that the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish event. As I see it, all civilised, fair-minded persons must ask themselves serious questions about the Holocaust. These are not Jewish questions. They are universal questions.’ And for all the energy he has devoted to Geneva, he doesn’t really believe in governments: ‘There is a no man’s land, a dead place,’ he writes at the end of Yellow Wind, ‘dividing personal pain, a man and his feelings, from the place in which things are decided and the agreements and the party manifestos and official eulogies are drafted.’ And he hates collectives: ‘There are questions,’ he says in relation to the Holocaust, ‘about the human soul that can so easily be made to stop speaking as "I” and to begin roaring about "we".’ Of the campaigning West Bank lawyer and writer, Raja Shehadeh, he writes in Yellow Wind: ‘He seems to be one for whom the blind, anonymous Occupation threatens his personal sense of individualism, rather than his Arab or national identity’ – as if Shehadeh should be saved from his struggle for national identity. What is left of collective identity, indeed of politics, if – in a classic liberal move that in this case is also a push against the horrors of the world – the individual is made to stand on her own? ‘In every person’s life,’ Tamar reflects, ‘there are situations in which he is solely responsible for saving his own soul.’
Can you be a non-Zionist Zionist? Grossman, it seems to me, comes close. Before being deported, Wasserman in See under: Love was a children’s writer, loved above all because he dealt with universal topics and carefully avoided the requisite and expected Zionist themes (the nation again cramps its child). The teenagers in Someone to Run With, all of them artists, trapped and exploited in a refuge for the homeless, sing this song:
A star of David broke in two
Herzl’s opinions died with the man.
Rotten in the grave, with spikes of Sabra fruit.
But everything goes according to plan.
Like a man to hold a gun in my hand,
Blow off heads, like a man,
Like a man, march to my death, all alone,
And everything goes according to plan.
And then: ‘All of a sudden, from all corners of the yard, even from the dance floor, rose the roar: "Fuck the plan.”’ Grossman is devoted to his country, but on condition, it seems, that it reach beyond just about every definition it has ever offered of itself.
Gradually, or rather between the lines, a very different voice can be heard from the one that tolls Israel’s fulfilment of its worst destiny. It is the voice of Grossman, the writer of brilliant fictions which ‘dissolve’ and ‘destabilise’ every best defence of his life. Fiction is not consoling: ‘It is his very freedom that deprives an artist of comforting illusions.’ This brings Grossman’s view of fiction close to his image of war. But fiction also saves: ‘When I write, for a moment I am not a victim.’ Writing is ‘an act of self-definition in a situation that literally threatens to obliterate me’. Above all, literature forces you into other people’s minds. It forces you to connect. Jerusalem is a city with a centre for lost dogs but not for missing children – it was partly to expose this fact about modern life in Israel that Grossman wrote his latest novel. If Tamar saves her own soul, it is not only by saving her brother, but by singing in a state of terror to strangers on the street: ‘I don’t have the courage to do this. I am not capable of giving myself up like this, to strangers.’ But she does. And because she does, and does it so well, her plan works. She is picked out and carted off by the criminals who have taken possession of all the child artists of the city, including her brother.
In Grossman’s fiction, everyone goes a bit too far – geographically, physically, psychologically, or all three – as if atoning for the blindness, or disconnectedness, of the nation (ignorance and intimacy as the opposite ends of a spectrum). ‘I must enter the vortex of my greatest fear and repulsion,’ he wrote as he made his way to the refugee camps in 1988. ‘Make room for them within us. How does one do that? It is precisely the thing that we, the majority, forbid them with such deft determination,’ he wrote in 1993, this time in relation to the Arab Israelis. This is not a call for empathy, but for something closer. A counter to ignorance, but also an alternative to the deadly forms of proximity that characterise a state of war. War brings people together like nothing else. Not by breaking bones – ‘Break their bones,’ Rabin called at the time of the first intifada, as Grossman recalls in Death as a Way of Life. Not by tearing flesh. But something not a million miles away. By the time he reaches Tamar, the young boy Assaf, who has been entrusted by Jerusalem City Hall to find the owner of the lost dog, has pored over her diaries. He knows the mind of a young girl who, convinced that nobody will ever understand her, longs above all to be read. Their final encounter merely confirms a link that existed long before they meet. Although the fiction, unlike the non-fiction, does not cross the Arab-Israeli divide, the challenge is still to cross the vortex, to get as far as you can – whatever the dangers – into the other’s place: ‘We will see the broken forms in each other,’ Yair says to Miriam. ‘This is what I want, right now. That we will see the darkness in each other.’
Someone to Run With falls into the category of adolescent novel. It has been a huge success in Israel, perhaps Grossman’s most commercially successful work, selling 100,000 copies straight away. Since he has been writing about children since the beginning, it seems appropriate that children – or rather not-quite-still-children – should now become his target reading group. Will this generation survive its parents? This is a question for any culture, but one that has its own urgency in Israel’s case. Grossman’s Jerusalem is a city of runaways, drug addicts, drop-outs, most of whom have left their parents, whether as a consequence of disillusionment or of neglect. Once again, the nation fails its child. No one is looking. Parental blindness mimics the blindness of the state. The only seer in the book is Theodora, a Greek nun, who can see virtually nothing because she has been trapped in a house in the centre of the city since she was chosen as a young girl to travel to the Holy Land and wait for the pilgrims of Lyxos (who will never come, as the island disappeared under the sea in 1951). But she is the only one who understands Tamar and Assaf, who find themselves unexpectedly and in turn at her door.
And yet this is one of Grossman’s most fiercely optimistic novels: if these children are lost, they have also been set free (we have failed, now it is up to you). Perhaps the mere fact of writing for this group of readers is his way of guaranteeing a future of which he himself – to judge from the essays – is increasingly unsure. You would be hard pressed to recognise the Jerusalem of the essays from this tale. Everything moves too fast (one way of saving yourself from political despair, or indeed any kind of despair, is never to stand still). Someone to Run With reads like an urgent bid against its own worst fears. Tamar’s brother is saved, she finds love and her lost dog. Theodora, at the high point of the drama, when Tamar’s life seems to be in danger, walks out onto the street. Neither 1967 nor the assassination of Rabin in 1995 had persuaded her to move. ‘Like a little girl who aged, instantly, without passing through life’, Theodora is a reprise of Kazik from See under: Love. The withered, prematurely aged can find life. The city will survive – if not what the nation wants for the city (meshing the destinies of Theodora, Tamar and Assaf, Grossman gets close to Joyce’s fantasy in Ulysses of the ‘Greek-Jew’).
How much damage can you do to a soul? The question has haunted Grossman from his earliest writing. Can it be repaired? (Different from asking whether there can be a resolution to the conflict.) In See under: Love, Neigel tentatively asks Wasserman: ‘Are certain passages – I mean – do you think any passages of the soul are irreversible?’ (not for him, as it turns out). Grossman addresses the same question as a warning to Gush Emunim, the Block of the Faithful, in Yellow Wind: ‘Is the soul a modular mechanism in which specific "parts” may be disconnected . . . until the danger passes?’ ‘Some parts of the soul,’ he asserts as a matter of fact in Death as a Way of Life, ‘cannot be reclaimed.’ Tamar takes up the question again. If a person seals up his soul for a certain mission, can they, when it is all over, go back to being who they were before? But when she remembers and repeats her question at the end of the novel, she is laughing joyously, ‘her heart full’.
In Death as a Way of Life, Grossman describes Jerusalem as a ‘hard city’ with ‘too much holiness in the air’. ‘It’s sad to be/the mayor of Jerusalem – it’s terrible,’ Yehuda Amichai writes in one of his best-known poems. Another poem, ‘Jerusalem’, contains these lines:
In the sky of the Old City
At the other end of the string,
I can’t see
Because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
They have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.
Grossman is not pretending to be happy. Euphoria can be a measure of bleakness, as well as its counterpoint. Death as a Way of Life and Someone to Run With appeared last year. Grossman’s writing is exuberant, wonderfully sorrowful. It is not a criticism to suggest that at times it seems as if he is the disappointed child. For me, there is no other Israeli writer, translated into English, who gets so close to the heart of the matter.