Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri.
Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.”
But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell.
During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts.
To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence.
Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son.
Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”