Make them go away

Neal Ascherson

  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
    Cape, 577 pp, £18.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 224 08999 9

Some novels are met by such a hurricane of hostile criticism that they sink out of sight. Only word of mouth, the contrary opinion running from reader to reader, can occasionally bring them to the surface again. To the End of the Land has the opposite problem. It arrived on a foaming wave of praise which, when they actually get down to its pages, will leave many readers puzzled. Normally an author can deflect blurb hyperbole with a wince. But this fanfare has been on a Hollywood Bowl scale that does Grossman, who has proved himself in the past to be a wise and talented writer, no favours at all.

‘To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.’ So wrote Nicole Krauss. Paul Auster ranked the book with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina: ‘wrenching, beautiful, unforgettable’. Grossman’s American publisher called it ‘one of the very greatest novels I shall have the privilege of publishing … When critics look back at the 21st century and list its 20 best novels, it will be on it.’ Several reviewers and interviewers have grabbed at the Tolstoy comparison: the vast scale, the humanity, the panorama of families in a land incessantly at war. Perhaps, they venture, this is the War and Peace of our own times.

Well, it’s not. A modern work of that Tolstoyan sweep did arrive in our times, but it was written by a different Grossman: Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s immense masterpiece, finished back in 1959 and first published in 1980. A comparison between the two books, Vasily’s and David’s, does not do the later one much good. As an outpouring of feeling, and as a series of sombre representations of the condition of modern Israel, To the End of the Land is often impressive, sometimes touching. As a novel it simply does not come off. This is Grossman’s ninth book of fiction to appear in translation, and he usually writes with clarity and economy. But this time, driven by personal and political anguish, he has opened the sluices. Everything pours in, often without much quality control, and the tortuous narrative techniques he uses create baffling complexity rather than a dramatic effect. The reviewers have also opened their critical sluices. But that particular flood seems to have more to do with the book’s context and content than with its quality. And the context – inseparable from the story itself, as Grossman has insisted – is formed by tragedy, national and personal.

Grossman is a well-known Israeli novelist and prose writer, whose books have been translated into some 30 languages. Born in 1954 in a working-class family, he served as a conscript in military intelligence after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Work as a radio and print journalist followed, and the first of his fictions. As the years passed he grew increasingly hostile to government policies towards Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and towards Israel’s Arab neighbours. But he has combined his moral outrage with an intense, often deeply emotional patriotism: ‘You can be very critical of Israel and yet still be an integral part of it,’ he has said. He is still an army reservist, even though he is now a prominent opposition activist who only last year was attacked and beaten up by the police during a demonstration against Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem.

He began this novel in May 2003. One of his two sons was already in the army, doing the three-year military service compulsory in Israel, while his younger son, Uri, was awaiting his call-up papers. Against this background of fears for his country and for his children, Grossman set out to write a grand political fiction, a story about recent history and the agonies of war; the beloved landscape itself; the women of Israel; the ambiguities of living with Israeli Arabs; the moral predicaments of decent people struggling not to be submerged by the sense of permanent threat which justifies horrifying means by their ends and the sacrifice of Israel’s young men and women for a militarist ideology which could never deliver peace. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged. But two young men appear and reappear in it, half-brothers whose lives are followed in intimate, fond detail from childhood up to their entry into the Israel Defence Forces.

Grossman’s own sons from time to time came home on leave and asked him how the big book was coming on. But then, in 2006, Israel launched its disastrous invasion of southern Lebanon to crush the Hizbullah militias. At first, Grossman seems to have felt that the incursion was a limited act of self-defence, justified by Hizbullah’s cross-border attack in which three Israeli soldiers were killed and two kidnapped. But he soon changed his mind, and at a public meeting called for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. Two days later, the news came that Uri had been killed. A missile struck his tank as it manoeuvred to rescue another burning vehicle and its crew.

After a time, David Grossman returned to the novel, which he revised and completed. The loss of his son, almost prophesied in his plan for To the End of the Land, in no way changed his political views, which have become if anything more severe in their opposition to Israeli policies. That fortitude and integrity awed his readers. And, naturally enough, awe has influenced the reception given to this novel in its final version. But respect for Grossman also means – or should mean – regretting that a work so important to him, achieved at such a price, has emerged as such a thornbush of stylistic trickery, talkative irrelevance and trudging exposition. Perhaps it’s vandalism, when dealing with a story whose timeline is so carefully shredded by innumerable flashbacks and then scattered into a mosaic, to collect these shreds and fit them together into a chronological sequence. All the same, legitimate or not, something like that has to be done with To the End of the Land in order to give any coherent overview of its story. And what emerges is a strong imaginative tale, a long and varied exploration of the land Israel has become.

In the beginning, there is a war. It seems to be the Six-Day War of 1967. In a blacked-out hospital ward where even the electricity has been cut off, three very sick teenagers lie struggling with fever and delirium. The girl is Ora; the two boys are Avram and Ilan. Everyone seems to have fled except for an Arab woman who brings them their medicine. In the darkness, weak as they are, the three find their way together, comfort one another and talk. In the background, they hear the Arab woman sobbing. They do not ask why.

When the war is over and they have left hospital, the three remain close. Avram and Ilan become intimate friends. Ora becomes a lover to both of them in turn, but settles down with Ilan. Then comes the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Avram, now a young intelligence officer, is cut off in a bunker near the Suez Canal as the Egyptians storm forward in their initially successful attack. Ilan deserts his post behind the lines and makes his way to the front in a vain attempt to find and rescue Avram. But Avram is captured and then hideously tortured. When he is released after the war, more dead than alive, Ora and Ilan try to care for the half-crazed wreck he has become. It’s during this time that Ora and Ilan conceive a son, Adam. But a year or so later Ilan leaves home. By now, Avram is in rehab, but still heavily depressed and sexually impotent; Ora moves in with him, sets herself to rescue his virility and conceives another boy. When he finds that she is pregnant, Avram throws her out. But Ilan returns to live again with Ora, and the child, Ofer, is born a few months later.

Grossman is in no hurry to give his people any strong identity, or to demarcate their characters. For much of the novel Ilan and Avram are little more than names, silhouettes whose presence and actions have a vivid impact on Ora but reveal little about themselves. It isn’t until about halfway through the book that the reader has a clearer picture of the two men. Ilan, lean and intense with green eyes, began life hoping to make films and music, but his very practical energy eventually led him into business as a wealthy expert on intellectual property rights. Avram was utterly different: big-bellied, with a wild bush of tangled black hair, he was a dreamer, prankster and poet. For a time after that spell in hospital, they tried to work together as an artistic team. But their lives began to drift apart until their only remaining connection was Ora: the woman who loves and is loved by them both, and who bears a son by each of them.

Ora is the dominating personality of the book. Again, Grossman says little about her. As a teenager in that hospital, she has ‘long cheekbones’ and ‘a lovely face’. Thirty years later, her hair has turned grey and she is wearing spectacles. That almost sums up the information about Ora. The destiny she mostly accepts is to nurture, revive, shelter, comfort and often scold the men in the story. In that sense, she is absolutely not a feminist heroine. But, indistinct as she is, Ora grows monumental through her passionate mourning for her country, or rather for the young men and women of Israel who – like her own sons – must be indoctrinated and then sacrificed in war.

After Ofer’s birth, there follows a long interval. Adam and Ofer grow up together as brothers; Avram shuts himself off from Ora and Ilan for some 13 years and lives in squalid isolation, washing dishes in bars and restaurants. Ilan prospers. Ora tries to live as a ‘normal’ housewife. But shadows gather over the two boys as they encounter the outside world. Adam develops a form of angry autism, cleaning himself obsessively, walling himself in as if he wanted to become indestructible. Ofer, as a small boy, panics over what he understands by the ‘Arab threat’; he sleeps with a monkey wrench under his pillow to beat up the Arabs if they come in the night, and writes down the numbers of the combined Arab armies in a secret notebook. Discovering in horror that there are actually Arabs living around him as Israeli citizens, he screams: ‘Make them go away!’

Adam grows up and does his military service. Then it is Ofer’s turn. Ora has to watch him grow hard and distant from her, as he carries out his duties in the West Bank. There is an official inquiry into an incident in Hebron, when Israeli soldiers lock an old man into a meat safe and forget about him, and Ora discovers that Ofer was involved. She rages at him, weeps, tries to make him – a serving soldier – promise never to shoot anyone. But Ilan growls: ‘You’re his mother, you’re not some Mother for Peace, OK?’

By now, fresh conflict is about to break out on the northern border. It’s 2006, and everyone knows that an Israeli punitive attack into Lebanon is inevitable. Ofer’s military service is due to end. But then Ora is appalled to discover that he has volunteered to prolong it, and to join the expedition against Hizbullah. She has an overwhelming premonition that she will never see him again.

At this moment of crisis, she is on her own; Ilan and Adam are away on some adventure holiday in South America. But Ora remembers that before this crisis she and Ofer had planned to take their own holiday together. They would walk the length of Israel, along the mountain trails and forest tracks. Now she decides to carry out the plan, in a new way. First, she hires her Arab car-driver friend Sami to drive her and Ofer to the forward army base where he must report for duty. They make their farewells. Then she has Sami take her to Tel Aviv, to the house where Avram – father of the son he has never seen – is discovered lying incontinent, filthy and comatose. But Ora will not be put off. Telling nobody where she is going, taking no phone or radio that might bring her the news about Ofer she dreads, she drags Avram to the car and makes Sami drive them across Israel to the head of the trail in Galilee. And there, with Avram at first stumbling and groaning, Ora and the father of her son begin to walk.

The walk forms the connecting piece, the supporting girder, which holds this long novel together. It’s also the only element which follows chronological order. Ora and Avram tramp across the Galilee hills by day and camp by night. Along the way, they talk and they argue and they remember. Successive episodes of the walk are scattered all through the book, each releasing complicated, zigzagging flashbacks which begin to fill in for the reader the events of the previous 40 years. They study the landscape they cross, its ups and downs and views lovingly listed by Grossman (but you have to be an outdoor Israeli or at least have a hiking map of Galilee to know what he is talking about). Significantly, almost every stage of their journey takes them past war memorials to the Israeli dead, reminders of other young lives sacrificed in all the conflicts since 1948.

They try to avoid other walkers, who might have news of the fresh fighting to the north of them. Day by day, Avram learns from Ora more about the son he has never seen and now, as both of them surmise, will never see. But what finally happens to Ofer and how Avram and Ora hear about it takes place beyond the novel’s end and is left to the imagination, although Grossman leaves little doubt about what Ofer’s fate will be. In the same way, the novel leaves the two of them still walking, still far from Jerusalem, still uncertain about how they will live – together or once more separated – when they come down from the hills.

Nothing is settled, nothing solved. There’s an honesty about this incompleteness: it suits the haystack texture of the book, which bristles with loose ends and half-explored secondary characters. And incompleteness and inconclusiveness make it hard to pack To the End of the Land into cheap but tempting bookshop bins. This is not a carefully encrypted allegory of recent Israeli history; the ‘walk’ is not a fable about Zionism’s journey through suffering, peril and error to enlightenment; Avram and Ilan don’t ‘stand for’ contrasting elements of Jewishness or personify anything except themselves. This is meant to be a tragic political novel, not some pulp epic. And Grossman knows that politics and the journeys of ordinary men and women through recent history are untidy and tangled. In other books, Grossman has shown his insistent concern with what is being done to ordinary Palestinians. To the End of the Land, by contrast, looks inwards at what damage and suffering that bitter, incomplete conquest has inflicted on the Israeli conquerors. There’s a flavour here of those American war films, proclaimed to be ‘against Vietnam’, in which only the American victims are in focus.

The passages which stay in the mind are not so much the heroic set-pieces (Avram alone in his bunker, waiting for the Egyptians to break in and broadcasting what may be his last thoughts over a radio link) as the episodes in which Grossman can use his talent for poignant ironies. Some of these are to do with Ora’s ambiguous attitude to the Arabs around her. Sami the taxi driver is an old ally whom she trusts, and yet after 21 years of friendship she thoughtlessly makes him drive her and Ofer to the camp where Israeli volunteers are massing to attack an Arab country. She understands how disastrous Israeli policies towards Palestinians have been, but when she and Avram walk past what seem to be the ruins of an Arab village, she refuses to respond: ‘Enough, enough, my hard drive is overloaded with this stuff.’

Other ironies are to do with the gap between private feelings and official rhetoric. Israeli TV at the battalion gathering-point catches Ora bravely smiling as she embraces Ofer for the last time. ‘What can a son tell his mother at a moment like this?’ the reporter asks. ‘Keep the beer cold for me till I get back!’ shouts Ofer, to hearty laughter from his mates. But what he has really whispered in Ora’s ear is this: ‘If I’m killed, leave the country. Just get out of here, there’s nothing here for you.’ So her walk through Galilee towards Jerusalem is a way of discovering her own country but also, perhaps, a way of saying farewell to it.

These and many other passages show Grossman’s practised talent as a writer and the imaginative power which he can release when he chooses. It may be insolent for a reviewer to say that a novelist had a great story but told it badly. All the same. To the End of the Land, seen as a whole, amounts to less than the sum of its parts. A first question is whether this has anything to do with Jessica Cohen’s translation from the Hebrew. Without knowing the language, it’s hard to say; the English version is fluent and conversational, occasionally unnervingly chatty (in the Hebrew, did Ora really respond to praise with ‘Moi? A bear of little brain like me?’). But the real trouble here is not so much language as construction. Grossman has relied on two literary devices which – in the way he uses them – make his novel extraordinarily hard to read. One is his version of the all-round interior monologue, in which you are told in detail just what each character is thinking, even while they are in mid-conversation with one another. Even Tolstoy, a master of multivocal fiction, was careful not to overuse this technique. Grossman uses it prodigally, and the narrative constantly clogs up with enormous trains of thought and rambling reflection.

The other device is the flashback – often prompted by associations in one of those thought-trains. Interfering with chronology is a venerable Modernist wheeze, enormously successful in 20th-century literature and now revived in faddishly baffling TV thrillers which flick from ‘now’ to ‘next year’ to ‘18 months earlier’. Disrupting time-sequence can be startling and dramatic, switching on new currents of suspense. But, as with interior monologue, Grossman overdoes it. The reader is sprayed with mystifying allusions to unknown events which may only begin to make sense hundreds of pages into the book. Too much confusion in story telling, inner voices which aren’t always interesting, explanations too long deferred, can all test patience dangerously. To the End of the Land certainly contains a human tale that might have been built up into the panoramic national novel which Grossman seems to have intended. It’s a pity that on this occasion his construction did not equal his vision.