The Beginning of Compassion

In the long-awaited translation of his 2008 novel, David Grossman presents a tale that is as much about the intensity of a mother's love for her son as it is about a novelist's love of language - a bid for its power as a force for shaping and sustaining life.

To the End of the Land

David Grossman signing books Emil Salman 2008
Emil Salman / Jini

by David Grossman (translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), Knopf, 592 pages, $26.95

Franz Kafka once described his longing for books that "come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves ... an ice axe to break sea frozen inside us." David Grossman's "To the End of the Land" (called "Isha Borahat Mebisora" - "A Woman Flees from Tidings" - when it was published in Hebrew two years ago ) comes as an eerie fulfillment of this vision. It is the story of a mother so afraid that her youngest son will die during his army service that she escapes her house for a trek in the hill country of northern Israel, gripped by the fantasy that his fate will remain in suspension if she is not present to receive word of his death.

While Grossman was writing the book, his son Uri, a soldier, was killed in a rocket attack on his tank during the last days of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah - a war Grossman had publicly come out against days earlier at a press conference, along with several other major Israeli novelists. The day after he

got up from the shivah, he turned back to writing it - his way, he said in a recent interview, of "choosing life" - and one senses the collision taking place in the book between bottomless, chaotic grief, and the novelist's compulsion to re-invent the world by re-naming it. The book - unruly, capacious, pitched at a high frequency of keening - is the axe Kafka hoped for, a major act of protest.

Ora, in a state of terror after her son has departed for a mission in the occupied territories, articulates to herself the purpose of her trip: "...if she runs away from home, then the deal - this is how she thinks of it now - will be postponed a little ... The arbitrary deal that dictates that she, Ora, agrees to receive notification of her son's death, thereby helping them bring the complicated and burdensome process of his death to its orderly, normative conclusion, and in some way giving them the pronounced and definitive confirmation of his death, which would make her, just slightly, an accessory to the crime."

With the word "death" clanging in her consciousness, Ora decides she must resist the logic of a society organized around sending its sons to war, a culture whose political language has become so insular and lifeless that it can no longer sustain a serious discussion about the pain of its own citizens, let alone its enemies. It is precisely this ossified language that Grossman has attempted to expose in much of his work: "Those who live in [Israel]," he has written, "will find it easy to understand how fears consolidate ideals around themselves, how needs become values, and how a subjective world-view and a self image that is wholly unsuited to reality can materialize. A special kind of language then begins to emerge, one that is usually a manipulation on the part of those who wish to prolong the distorted situation. It is a language of words intended not to describe reality but to obfuscate it, to allay it."

And so Ora's rebellion is essentially a linguistic one: the replacement of one kind of language - public, mechanistic, desiccated by cliche - with another - private, confiding, generative. She believes that if she can talk about Ofer during every moment he is away - giving a name to "every eyelash and fingernail, to every passing expression, to every movement of mouth or hands, or the shadows that fall on his face at different times of day, every kind of laughter and anger and wonderment" - the incantatory power of her words will sustain his life. "To the End of the Land" is as much a novel about the intensity of a mother's love for her son as it is about a novelist's love of language - a bid for its power as a force for shaping and sustaining life. But finding this new language is not easy, particularly for someone fluent in the grammar and strictures of the prevailing one. The novel's opening section (following a rather mysterious, theatrical prologue ) shows us an internal division within Ora: Even as she is setting forth on her rebellious trip, her complicity with the reigning order becomes sickeningly evident.

Cruel call to Sami

The story begins on the day that Ofer is to be deployed to the West Bank with his unit (although it's never said explicitly, it's clear that the story is set during "Operation Defensive Shield" in 2002, at the height of the second intifada ). Ora takes him to the mall to buy him needed clothing and music, they sit in the shuk in Jerusalem for a sumptuous meal of his favorite foods, and all the while she observes him hungrily, her panic at his imminent departure pulsing away beneath the day's casual preparations. In her despair, she does something cruel, calling Sami, an Israeli-Arab cab-driver employed by her estranged husband Ilan, who has worked for the family for years, to drive them to the military staging area - essentially asking him to add his "modest contribution to the Israeli war effort."

Sami is a man full of charm and wiles, jovially cynical about Israel, but comfortable in the presence of his fellow Jewish citizens. Gentle, dependable, he has been a fixture of the family's daily life, and he and Ora have, over years of driving together, developed a tacit, comfortable intimacy. But on the day of the military call-up, the private zone of equality and friendship in Sami's car is permanently desecrated.

More than the hundreds of news reports about the stallings and reversals and betrayals involved in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, the scenes between Ora and Sami demonstrate the horrifying tenuousness, and the incipient violence, of life in this place. With a kind of Jamesian attentiveness to the intricate choreography of emotional upheaval, Grossman shows us the unraveling of a friendship within a matter of hours. Ora - carrying an "absurd purple suede handbag," an emblem of luxury that sticks out grotesquely on this wretched day - tries to prod Sami into forgiving her with incessant, intimate chatter. He refuses to engage her, coldly withdrawing and calling her "Mrs. Ora." As the day goes on, each of them - almost as if compelled by forces outside themselves - take their places in the preordained order of things: she as the arrogant, high-handed conqueror, and he as the embittered and conquered. The talk that usually flows freely between them devolves into a series of blunted demands. It is a complete breakdown of communication - another instance of language becoming useless and debased.

The story of Ora and Sami's acrimonious parting trails off, but the painful opening scenes between them stage the questions that will be explored with great beauty and intensity throughout the novel: Is it possible to glimpse the interior life of another person, to find a language vivid and precise enough to pierce the boundary between two distinct points of view? And if this language can be found, even in the privacy between two people, might it not be the basis for broader reconciliation? Grossman has long been interested in exploring the textures and sensations of intimacy, and in this book he has succeeded with ferocious power.

Mad walk in the Galilee

The next part of the novel is a transcription of a meandering, associative conversation between Ora and her closest childhood friend and former lover, Avram, whom she has enlisted to come with her on her mad walk in the Galilee. He is a strange choice of traveling companion. Heavy-set, slow-moving, drug-addled and emotionally disturbed, Avram is recalcitrant and difficult, and because of a trauma he experienced in the army when he was young, has mostly turned his back on the possibilities of speech. But the reasons that Ora has chosen him as the repository for her story about Ofer become clear - he is connected to her son in unexpected ways; and even more importantly, he, more than anyone Ora knows, understands the generative properties of language. As they walk together, Avram's story emerges.

Ora and Avram met as young children, when they (along with Ilan, who was to become Ora's husband ) were hospitalized with an infectious disease during the 1967 war (the novel is shot through with descriptions of illness and bodily affliction - an exterior expression of the society's interior decay ). As a boy, Avram experimented constantly with words, inventing pet-names and neologisms, and composing radio plays, Homeric epics, limericks and novellas. His manic energy alternately entranced and frightened Ora, though they remained friends and occasional lovers throughout their adolescence and young adulthood. But then Avram - through an accident that Ora and Ilan are inadvertently involved in - was captured by enemy soldiers during the Yom Kippur War, and brutally tortured. He was returned to Israel comatose and nearly dead, and though his two dear friends cared for him tenderly, Avram essentially renounced them, and lived like a recluse in Tel Aviv, never writing another word. Ora and Ilan resumed their lives in Jerusalem - tentatively at first, and then with joy and pleasure as they raised their two sons. But the loss of Avram, and his frightening denunciation of life, lingers at the edges of their family, a constant reminder of the chaos and brutality of war.

When their sons are of age to go to the army, and a new war comes, the carefully cultivated world of their family implodes. Avram is the friend to whom Ora turns: She feels that if she can tell him the story of her family's life, and if he can listen to her, she will have restored to him something that was lost, and the disorder and unfairness of life will somehow be corrected, if only slightly. She cleaves to the magical belief that a successful transmission of the story not only will awaken Avram's generous imagination, but will actually keep Ofer alive while he is in the field in the West Bank.

The absurdity of this premise, Ora's hysterical illogic, her almost compulsive need to narrate every thought and feeling and image that passes through her mind during the charged days of Ofer's deployment, might have made for a story too shrill and disordered for the reader to bear.

And in fact, the novel does share the unruly quality of Ora’s thoughts. As she and Avram walk without direction through the mountains and valleys of the Galilee, Ora gropes around in her store of memories, to try to illuminate for Avram the most precious moments of her children’s lives. At times, through the telling of the story, Avram becomes the vessel Ora longs for: She speaks, and he listens with perfectly calibrated intensity. At other times, one of them becomes overwhelmed, or irritated, or moody; or their conversation is interrupted by the presence of other people they come across on their path; or Avram fails to understand something that Ora tells him; or Ora produces some thought that probes at Avram’s old wounds and he withdraws. But it is precisely in documenting the grooves and vicissitudes, the eruptions and retreats that mark their conversation that Grossman’s genius lies. Much like the novelist, Ora tells Ofer’s story as a way to combat the randomness of life, to preempt his death − but life is recalcitrant, and Ora’s words falter and slip next to its unyielding indifference.

And yet, there are sublime moments when all the looping talk gathers to points of lucid expressiveness. Here is Ora, inspired by a gesture of Avram’s, remembering playing with Ofer as a child:

“She was lying on her bed, rocking him on her upturned feet and arms in a game of airplane. He laughed and his whole body quivered, and his fine halo of hair softly fell and rose as he sailed. The sunlight coming through the window shone through his ears, and they were orange and translucent. They stuck out from his head, just as they do today. She moved him into the light and saw a delicate braid of veins and soft twists and bumps. She became quiet and focused, as if someone were about to tell her an indescribable secret. Her face must have changed, because Ofer stopped laughing and looked at her gravely, and his lips lengthened and protruded in a wise, even ironic old man’s expression. She marveled at the precision in each of his limbs. She spun him slowly on the soles of her feet, moved him this way and that, catching the entire wheel of the sun in one of his ears.”

The arch-physicality of this description − the attention to all the marks and gestures of Ofer’s body − is typical of the novel’s style. Ora is highly attuned to physical life, from the flora and fauna surrounding them on the trail, to the changes in Avram as he becomes accustomed to hiking, to the flutters and creaks in her own body as she scales difficult hills. Her memories and fears register as acute sensations, and the words she uses to describe life with her family have a flesh-like sumptuousness that at moments edges to a kind of unsettling, raw carnality.

But this quality of wildness is also one of the book’s great strengths, and part of its central project. Grossman plunges fearlessly into the most private chambers of Ora’s mind, and the prose becomes enlivened in just the way Ora fantasizes that Ofer himself will be enlivened by her words. The charge that passes from Ora to Avram, from Grossman to the reader, has an electrifying force that is almost frightening.

Primordial, blazing material

In one of his strangest, most deeply felt essays, “The Desire to Be Gisella,” Grossman wrote about his intention to unsettle the reader in just the way I’ve described, by exposing her to what he calls “the magma, the primordial, blazing material that bubbles inside every person”:

“We human beings are uneasy about what truly occurs deep inside the Other, even if that Other is someone we love. And perhaps it is more than unease: perhaps it is a fear of the mysterious, nonverbal, unprocessed core, that which cannot be subjected to any social taming, to any refinement, politeness, or tact; that which is instinctive, wild, chaotic, not at all politically correct. It is dreamlike and nightmarish, radical and exposed, sexual and unbridled ... mad and sometimes cruel, often animalistic, for good or for bad.”

It is this sensation of complete intimacy with a character − a peeling back of the skin that separates reader from character, reader from writer − that Grossman hopes to arouse, even if it can be unpleasant, or revolting: If we can “catch sight of a similarity − sometimes surprising, sometimes unsettling and threatening − between this character and ourselves ... even if the character arouses resistance, aversion or disgust, these reactions no longer create in us total alienation from the character; they do not separate us from him. They prevent us from sharply, unequivocally, perhaps uncompassionately condemning the character.”

With its nearly uncontainable abundance of feeling, its creases and turns, its muscular, even chaotic language, the novel embodies the pain and difficulty of this attempt to see another person clearly.

This, for Grossman, is the beginning of compassion, the suggestion of a way forward − the only way he knows. By the end of the novel, Ofer’s fate is still held in suspension; Ora and Avram’s lives are still in disarray, the country is still engaged in war. And yet, a revolution has been achieved: the slow replacement of a “normative” system of language that inures its speakers against the chaos of death, with one that rises from the wild depths, and sweeps away the boundary between two people.

Sasha Weiss is an editor at The New York Review of Books.