Israel’s foremost novelist, David Grossman, has just published a new novel in English, To the End of the Land (original Hebrew title, Isha Borachat Mi’Bsora, A Woman Flees [Bad] Tidings). While I have not yet read it, I’ve just read a remarkable, glowing review by Jacqueline Rose in The Guardian which has made me put aside my quarrels with Grossman’s liberal Zionist views to embrace the book.
It is interesting that Grossman and his translator have discarded the original Hebrew title in favor of a much more allegorical one in English. “To the End of the Land,” as a title does convey the heroine’s trek across the land of Israel. It also conveys the notion that “the land” is a concept which we must somehow “get to the end of” if we are ever to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That we must somehow liquidate the notion that land (whether viewed by Palestinian or Israeli nationalists) is sacred or more important than people and peace. I know I’m not quite saying this right and will be jumped on by my Palestinian/Arab friends. For this I apologize.
But I also rather like the simplicity and descriptiveness of the Hebrew original.
Many will know that while writing the book, Grossman’s beloved son, Uri, was killed on the last day of the 2006 Lebanon war. In a monumental feat of pure guts, Grossman addressed a rally commemorating the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and subsumed his grief into a savage and profound assault on the then prime mininster, Ehud Olmert and his chief of staff, Dan Halutz. While this speech did not seal Olmert’s political fate (Israel is too polarized for such a possibility), it permanently tarnished him in the eyes of many Israelis. When he fell from power over a tawdry corruption scandal, many of the novelist’s criticisms of the politician were borne out.
Here are some excerpts from Rose’s review:
For some time now, David Grossman has been describing his writing as a means of survival, as a way of no longer feeling a victim in the “disaster zone” of the seemingly eternal conflict that is Israel-Palestine…With the publication of this extraordinary, impassioned novel, such purpose or hope acquires a new meaning and intensity.
…To the End of the Land tells the story of Ora, who leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel to Galilee, in order to avoid the “notifiers” who might arrive at any moment to inform her of the death of her son. It is the trip they had planned together to celebrate his discharge from military service. Instead, he volunteers to rejoin the army in a high-intensity offensive – “a kick-ass operation” – against the Palestinians at the start of the second intifada…
Grossman has not ventured into this territory in his fiction for a long time – not since his earliest novel, The Smile of the Lamb, which was the first Israeli novel to be written about the occupation…Ora believes that Israel has no future: “It doesn’t really have a chance, this country. It just doesn’t.” Although Ora will never leave Israel, she is running away…
Ora is, as she puts it, the first “notification-refusenik”. Ofer will not die as long as she keeps talking and writing about his life (she keeps notebooks as she goes). “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Avram whispers to her near the end of the novel, “I will fear no evil, for my story is with me.” She also believes, in what she herself recognises as “flipped-out” magical thinking, that if she is not there to receive the notification, then it will be impossible for her son to have died…Before anything else, To the End of the Land is a novel that recounts like no other I have read the lengths to which a mother will go to preserve the life of her child.
…This is a novel that forces us to ask more than ever: who are the Arabs for Israel’s Jews?…in one of the most powerful scenes in the novel, Sami…drives her through a checkpoint with a sick Palestinian child in her lap to a makeshift hospital where she, and we as readers, are witness to the precariousness of life under occupation (a child on the other side against whom all the odds are stacked but who deserves no less to survive).
…It has become part of the legend of this novel that, while he was writing it, Grossman’s son Uri was killed on the last day of the 2006 Israeli offensive in Lebanon. It will never be read now without that knowledge, without that unspeakable pain, which is in danger of conferring on the book a mythical status. To the End of the Land is without question one of the most powerful and moving novels I have read. But we do the novel, and Grossman, no favours if we turn it into a sacred object, beyond critical scrutiny and outside the reach of the history to which it so complexly and sometimes disturbingly relates.