To the End of the Land
by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
Knopf, 2010, $26.95 cloth, ISBN 9780307592972
reviewed by Laura Albritton
A great work of literature takes on life and death: the mystery of birth, the complications of living, and the awful truth that not only are we going to die, but that everyone, including those we love most fiercely, must also die. By many people’s estimation Israeli author David Grossman is a writer on the path to greatness. His work has been awarded international prizes; whether the Swedes will ever award him the Nobel is a question for another day. What is clear is that his latest novel, To the End of the Land, is the kind of book that alters the way we view not only life and death, but the power and limitations of writing.
Grossman has chosen to focus this story on Ora, an Israeli woman in her fifties, as she is plunged into a familial crisis during an escalating military action. Ora is a rich character: excitable, introspective, impulsive. In an interview, Grossman described her as a typical Israeli woman of a certain age, yet there is nothing stereotypical about her. It is her energy, her wonderful combination of self-doubt and forceful confidence, that gives the novel life.
The book opens with a prologue in which Ora meets her husband-to-be, Ilan, and also her eventual lover, Avram. These two men become the poles of Ora’s life, until she has her sons, Adam and Ofer. Avram will come to depend on Ora and Ilan like a mother and father; Ilan will vacillate between intense loyalty and a need to keep his wife and her lover at a distance. There is more than a touch of the mythic in this triangle.
As the novel shifts forward in time, we find Ora in the present, estranged from her son Adam, who is traveling in South America with his father. She remains close with Ofer, who has just finished his military service in the Israeli army doing very dangerous work. She and Ofer have planned to take a long hiking trip; they will trek “to the end of the land.” Ora is thrilled that she can finally relax about her son’s safety, but then war breaks out and Ofer tells her he must return to his unit.
She would not let up until he admitted that he had called them that morning, even before six he had called the battalion and begged them to take him, even though today, at nine-zero-zero, he was supposed to be at the induction center for his discharge, and from there to drive to the Galilee with her.
Throughout the novel Grossman, who is well-known in Israel for his left-of-center views, depicts the moral inconsistencies within his country, especially concerning its policies towards Palestinians. When it is time to take Ofer back to his unit, Ora calls her friend and taxi driver Sami, an Arab-Israeli, only belatedly realizing the staggering insensitivity of the request. Sami is “the only Arab in this whole convoy, she thinks, and she too starts to feel a prickle of sweat: he’s simply scared, he’s dying of fear, how could I have done this to him?” Ora apologizes, but despite her affection for him, Sami remains an employee, a tool to be used, and she will call him again.
At this point, Ora makes a wild decision: she will not wait for news of the war and listen for the knock of the army officials come to tell her her son is dead. Instead, she sets out and virtually kidnaps Avram (who has become a recluse) and demands that Sami drive them “to the end of the land.” She will hike with Avram instead of Ofer, and tell him about her son, and by doing so, keep Ofer alive. If she cannot hear the bad news, then he cannot be dead. Grossman, with forceful, swirling prose, pushes his character on this quixotic journey.
As Ora drags Avram through the wilderness, we learn about her marriage to Ilan, and how it has been unsettled from the beginning. We also learn how Ora and Ilan’s devotion to Avram has united them and divided them. It becomes clear that Avram has sustained a terrible trauma that has caused him to withdraw from normal life. He and Ilan served in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Avram was captured by the Egyptians in the desert, and there underwent
days and nights of interrogation and torture, when they denied him food and water and withheld sleep and made him stand for hours in the sun and held him for days and nights in a cell just large enough to stand in, and one by one they pulled out his fingernails and toenails, and hung him by his hands from the ceiling and whipped the soles of his feet with rubber clubs, and hooked electrical wires to his testicles and nipples and tongue, and raped him.
When they begin to bury him alive for the third time, Avram finally “lets go.” He lets go of the will to live.
To the End of the Land depicts the intense inner workings of a parent’s grief, but the book has broader aspirations. It portrays a country, which, as Grossman has said, has no real concept of its own future existence; the fear of being exterminated or obliterated by its neighbors seeps into every crevice of daily life. Whatever one feels about the Israeli government, one begins to understand how corrosive it must be to live surrounded by countries that long for your destruction. Grossman himself served in the military, as do most Israeli citizens, and the flashbacks of Avram's and Ilan’s experiences in wartime are visceral and convincing.
Toward the end of the novel, Ora has managed to pull her old lover Avram out of a deep nihilistic depression. She does this by revealing a secret that concerns them both, and then by badgering Avram, prodding him to walk, and making him listen to her endless chatter. It is a small victory, although in the final pages we still do not know whether Ofer is safe.
In an afterword we learn that David Grossman began writing the novel in 2003 when his oldest son was serving in the Armored Corps, and a year and a half before his younger son began his military service. He says, “At the time, I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” When his son Uri joined the army, they used to talk about the manuscript. Then, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Uri and his tank crew were killed. Ora’s horrible anxiety, rendered so beautifully with long nervous ramblings as she hikes through the Galilee, had its true life parallel. Grossman closes the afterword with this: “After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”