Traversing Israel, echoing truth in David Grossman’s latest novel

BY VICKI CABOT, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but good fiction, superlative fiction, grips us with a force that thrusts us beyond those boundaries into strange new territory lit with glaring new understandings. Such is the case with David Grossman’s stunning “To the End of the Land” (Knopf, $27 hardcover), translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, that propels us literally to the end of the land – and the end of our emotional tether – threatening to overwhelm but holding us firmly in its grasp.

Grossman is in control, and we follow, like good soldiers, even as we may figuratively cover our eyes. He leads us unrelentingly to grim confrontation with Israel’s reality, the insoluble conflict, the enduring threat, the troubling moral dilemma, and its real-life manifestation in the everyday lives of its people.

We meet Ora, the ubermother, fiercely protective of her sons; Avram, her longtime friend and sometime lover, whose brilliance and impulsiveness were damaged when he was captured and tortured during the 1973 war; Ilan, her rational and distant husband; and Adam and Ofer, the two sons they’ve raised. Grossman, the brilliant Israeli novelist and anti-war activist, conjures them in flesh and blood, down to a freckled cheek, a tug on an earlobe, an ironic smile, while laying bare their emotions. Then, he sets them against Israel’s spectacular northern landscape, a beguiling foil for the drama unfolding across its mountain trails.

It is there Ora goes when her younger son Ofer re-enlists for another tour of Israeli army duty, scuttling plans for a mother-son weeklong hike to mark the end of his service. She heads for the hills, anxious and distraught, her faulty reasoning convincing her that her flight will protect her son from harm. Military officials – the dreaded notifiers – cannot knock on her door to deliver news of a casualty if she is nowhere to be found. Her absence will be her son’s insurance.

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She cajoles Avram to join her for the trek. Their friendship became strained after Ora and Ilan married and their son Adam was born. Later, Ora became pregnant by Avram and had Ofer, who is raised as though he is Ilan’s child. Avram has had no contact with his son.

As improbable as the story line sounds, it works, creating a powerful dramatic arc that Ora and Avram climb throughout the novel’s nearly 600 pages. They talk as they walk, and gradually Ora re-creates for Avram the domestic haven she made for Ilan and her sons, the normalcy of their lives as told in countless little quotidian details. Avram, broken by his years of captivity, slowly regains his strength and humanity as Ora draws him in with stories about her family life and particularly about the son he has never known.

Early in their journey, they stop to rest. “Then they said goodbye to the lovely spot,” writes Grossman, “loaded up their backpacks, his blue and hers orange, and everything Avram did took forever, and it seemed that each movement he made passed through every joint in his body. But when he finally stood up straight and glanced at the river, a slight vernal brightness ran over his forehead, as though a gleaming coin had shone its golden luster on him from afar …”

Grossman examines that “gleaming coin” of motherhood and fatherhood, turning it over and over again as he captures what it means to bring a child into the world, what it means to love a child, and what it means to even contemplate losing one. He goes on, “and she entertained a fleeting idea: What if Ofer were here with us? The notion was utterly unfounded. She had only been able to sneak Avram tiny crumbs of information about Ofer, as she’d been forbidden to talk about him or mention his name all these years. But now, for a brief moment, she saw the two of them here, Ofer and Avram, helping each other across the water, and her eyes shined at him.”

Traversing Israel’s landscape, Ora keeps Ofer alive. As the miles pass, he becomes ever more real to Avram. Finally, he asks of the son he does not know, “Does he look like me? … And for the first time, she describes Ofer to him in detail. The open, large, tanned face, the blue eyes that are both tranquil and penetrating, and the eyebrows so fair you can hardly see them, just like she used to have. … The words tumble out of her, and Avram swallows them up.”

The reader does, too, almost drowning in Grossman’s exquisite prose and its ability to capture the unbreakable bonds between parents and children and the unfathomable price Israel has paid in fallen sons and daughters.

Then, of course, there is the postscript. Grossman tells of beginning to write the book in 2003, a year or so before his younger son, Uri, followed his older brother, Yonatan, into Israel’s Armored Corps. “I had a feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him.”

It did not. On August 12, 2006, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon.

After finishing shiva, Grossman went back to the book, fiction echoing truth.

Vicki Cabot reviews books for Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.