Why Do We Mourn the Way We Do?

As if in a dialogue with David Grossman’s recent book about bereavement, Haggay Linik’s novel dares to question our society’s rituals and rules for mourning its fallen sons.

That evening Nehemiah returned home and his mouth was bleeding.” These are the opening words of Haggay Linik’s novel “Darush Lahshan,” which begins with the sight of an injured and bleeding mouth, an image that elucidates the muteness of his two main characters, Nehemiah and Mira, who lost their eldest son in one of the wars. And the muteness, or silence, of each differs: She withdraws into silence, freezes her words and their movement; and he − the charismatic speaker, the wizard with words − hides his mouth in the palm of his hand, so that nobody will notice his missing teeth. The book describes their muteness. That’s the whole story it tells.

A bereaved family, bereaved parents, are surrounded by endless words of official, ritual consolation: routine, anticipated, buzzing like flies until they become deafening. They are almost the only sounds that can be uttered in the public space in Israel, which sends its sons to die in the name of the sanctity of life, and must deal with this moral contradiction by means of these words. They establish the status of the fallen son and of his parents: In the Israeli rites of the national religion he, the victim, becomes a ghost, a dead person who is not really dead, because his soul remains alive and active, part of the collective-national soul and supporting it. In his death, the victim commands us to keep living.

Memorial Day on Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda mall - Anat Zakai / BauBau
Anat Zakai / BauBau

For their part, the bereaved parents are “compensated” by a culture that sees their loss as an achievement, both private and collective. They gain a presence in the public domain, in which they are granted authority, a voice and significance; this authority does not stem from their abilities and talents, but from the fact that they have paid a high price. In their mourning, they represent “history,” the sense of victimhood and the nation’s shared identity.

This is the terrible, binding theatrical ritual of Israeli bereavement, which expropriates the pain of the family to the general public, and colors loss in the sanctity of devotion, belonging, sacrifice and heroism. Haggay Linik’s novel confronts this theater as a literary act of desecration. He puts the theatrical pathos in its place, distorting religious texts and the army’s official “Yizkor Elohim” memorial prayer. He does so without defiance or arrogance, calm in the cry of a bleeding mouth. The scales that place death and redemption, loss and memory, sacrifice and heroism, opposite one other lose their balance. They rock back and forth, and in their movement bring to the surface the forgotten secrets of the ethos of bereavement: the loneliness, the cynical exploitation, and the wounded souls who remain behind, without consolation, their pain and their voice dimmed in the overwhelming noise of the play of collective memory.

Six Jewish sons

Mira and Nehemiah live in a small moshav near the airport. They have five sons, and another one, the oldest, who is dead, and they relate to the fact of his death according to their ability, according to their pain. She is a German convert to Judaism, a victim of the acts of rape carried out by the soldiers of the Red Army against German women at the end of the war, who raised six Jewish sons. The first, the most beloved, was killed, and she withdraws into her mourning. She turns the house into a grave site that houses the memory of her dead son. Dressed in black and smoking silently, she wants to shrink, to disappear like her beloved son, in order to meet him within the disappearance.

She aspires with all her might to preserve the memory, not to subtract or add anything to it; to freeze the course of life so that it won’t be dimmed and evaporate. She remembers every detail, allows nothing to divert her attention: not new words, not her other children, not the course of life that, to her chagrin, continues. Contact becomes superfluous, because the outside must be avoided, the skin leading to the outside must be blocked, in order to enable the memory of the inside to expand and be revealed to live within her.

And her husband Nehemiah, who was alienated from his son before his death, having seen him as “Momma’s boy,” and who is also alienated from his other sons, uses his pain to fulfill his great plan: to take over the local council, to be elected a leader, to play the game of power and politics, equipped with a lofty asset – his dead son. He has “a lethal weapon that influences the entire population,” he reflects, and he can use his dead son as a blessing in disguise, to exploit the pain instead of becoming mired in it. Because the members of the moshava will arrive at the polls on election day and “They won’t choose him − they’ll choose his son. He is the one who will move the ballot bearing his name.” He plots and plans, imagining the speeches, the fist-raising; the gesture of the tragic majesty of the worthy leader, the supreme sacrificer.

Through his hunger for power, Nehemiah feels like an omniscient giant in his loneliness, crossing the silence of the home-grave, making great speeches with a toothless mouth, whose rotten teeth have been removed in order to be replaced with new ones. And how will Nehemiah give speeches without teeth, how will Mira disappear while she’s alive, if they don’t make use of their dead son?

The silence of the son can save both of them, the mother and the father; their delusions stem from his silent cry, and like all delusions, are planted in a time that is not time, like the perpetual calendar hanging in their bathroom, which doesn’t renew itself and doesn’t change, and on which the signs of death are like ghostly footprints. Death accompanies life, gives it meaning and purpose and movement, and they in return devote themselves to it and serve it like those serving in the Temple. The story reveals almost nothing about the son, only that he was and is no longer. That he let out the air from the neighbor’s tires at the age of 12, that he played the piano. We don’t know much, only that longings and guilt feelings and festive pathos crouch on his grave, as on the graves of other fallen soldiers, and make him unapproachable.

Wretchedness and glory

And all around, the life of the moshava is presented in its full wretchedness and glory; small, touching people, with mistaken dreams. Each of them wants to tell his story, but is incapable of doing so. None of them has a ghostly whisperer to properly put in words the full drama of their stories, who will put the right words into the right mouth, words that will perpetuate their importance, their stolen heroism. “The dead in this country have a lot of power, more than the living,” writes Linik. “Only politics makes it possible to turn death into a manual laborer that works for it. And only in politics does death have eternal life.”

One can laugh at this folly, laugh in order to feel pain. Although the novel has its shortcomings − it suffers from a burdensome surplus of symbolism, especially related to the past of its main characters − it also has an effective and complex combination of pain and humor. The brilliant ending, a local version of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” ties the threads together, while leaving them unraveled; and it explains the very real mission of the novel as a complex look at the rituals of bereavement. It dares to demonstrate the inability of those rituals and rules to provide the consolation that they endeavor to provide; it whispers their secrets.

And another comment in conclusion. “Wanted: A Whisperer” was published at almost the same time as David Grossman’s book “Falling Out of Time,” and the two works conduct a fascinating conversation between them. It stems from the same point of origin, which is unbearable: The constant cry of the silent, robbed mouth. “One after another the words died out, and we were like a house in which all the lights are slowly extinguished,” writes Grossman. And Linik writes: “Perhaps time will do its job. And time does nothing.”

Literary critic Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.