Book review: 'To the End of the Land' by David Grossman
To the End of the Land

A Novel

David Grossman

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Alfred A. Knopf: 582 pp., $27.95

From an American standpoint, the degree of moral authority conferred upon Israeli novelist David Grossman in his homeland can be difficult to fathom. A writer of literary fiction can also be a significant social figure? The idea seems too quaint to entertain. But although Grossman, the widely translated Hebrew storyteller and prominent peace activist, rarely aligns his politics with a Knesset consensus, his words have more than once provided a genuine shock to his embattled country's conscience.

In 1987, a few months before the first intifada, a newsmagazine dispatched Grossman to the West Bank, and he used his fluent Arabic to collect the grievances of occupied Palestinians from all walks of life. The resulting report, "The Yellow Wind," gave public airing to a previously suppressed narrative and forced Israelis to reckon with a slow-burning nightmare of their own creation. It was an outrage, a prophetic wake-up call and hugely consequential.

Although he gained international prominence with a documentary report, Grossman owes his lofty status in Israel to more oblique forms of political commentary. (In 2004, he even wrote a hip-hop song for the group Hadag Nachash that became an improbable hit.) His novels skirt naturalism, instead plumbing the psychic depths and ethical ambiguities specific to Israeli life and often staging them in universal magical-realist terms. "See Under: Love," his sophisticated albeit overpraised postmodern epic, explores the lingering pall cast by the Holocaust upon the author's generation by, in one section, anthropomorphizing the Polish author Bruno Schultz, murdered by a Nazi officer in 1942, into a salmon. "The Book of Intimate Grammar" is the title of one Grossman novel, but it seemingly applies to them all; even at their most fantastical, Grossman's stories are grounded in the workaday anxieties of interpersonal conflict. As the author Amos Oz reminds outsiders, "there is no word for fiction in Hebrew."

In 2003, Grossman embarked upon a project of outsize scope, the story of a woman who, after her son volunteers for a military operation, leaves home on an ambitious wilderness hike to avoid the knock at the door bringing the worst possible news. If they can't notify her, she resolves, then he can't get hurt. The folly of even attempting a large-scale novel about "the situation" (hamatzav in Hebrew) — that all-encompassing noun that reflects a cold, inflexible fact of life, independent of blame and impervious to outside solutions — is neatly encapsulated, early on, by Ora, the novel's heroine: "Who could possibly come up with a new, decisive argument that hasn't yet been heard?" But Grossman wrote with the force of Ora's irrational, personal conviction. In 2006, as Grossman was finishing the new novel, his own son Uri, a military tank commander, was killed in the war in Lebanon. The tragedy struck two days after Grossman held a press conference calling for an end to the fighting, two days before the official cease-fire, and two weeks before Uri's 21st birthday.

"To the End of the Land," the engrossing, nearly 600-page product of such specific anguish, does not marshal any bold new arguments. Grossman's case against war is the most primitive one imaginable: He endeavors to demonstrate the cost of a single human life, in this case by underlining the miraculous set of circumstances that converge to bring a child into the world. The novel begins in a private sphere carved out of an earlier conflict, as three sickly teenagers holed up in the isolation ward of a Tel Aviv hospital comfort one another while the Six Day War of 1967 rages outside. Sitting in bed, recovering from jaundice, Ora receives a series of visits from Avram, a garrulous romantic with a vivid imagination and writerly ambitions, and Ilan, temporarily wheelchair-bound but mysterious, reserved and beautiful. This fateful meeting quickly develops into the sort of grand love triangle common to sweeping historical fiction, and although she establishes relationships with both men, Ilan is the one she marries, and Avram is relegated to the role of intimate surrogate.

But by the time this story begins in earnest, the men in Ora's life have rendered her affections obsolete. Ilan has divorced her, taking her older son with him on a bachelors' romp through South America, and younger son Ofer is so loyal to the state (and ignorant of Ora's emotional ordeal) that he cancels a long-planned hiking trip with his mother — mere days after the conclusion of his official military service — to voluntarily reenlist for an emergency operation. Avram, who was captured and tortured by the Egyptians in 1973's Yom Kippur War, now registers as a spectral figure, distant and peripheral. But her bags are packed, and she won't go alone. In what registers as the Middle Eastern equivalent of a John Ford western, a feverish Ora forces Avram to follow her to their land's geographic and metaphysical borders, where our vulnerable, oversharing Scheherazade reconstructs the lives of her two sons — the ones Avram has never met — out of a patchwork of intimate remembrances.

This long walk makes up the entire book. In its rougher stretches, "To the End of the Land" can feel overly sentimental and laden with awkward contrivance, but the novel's overwhelming, insistent emotional richness rewards the reader's indulgence. "Start from a distance," Avram cryptically warns Ora as she spins her web, and his advice underscores a tricky balance of life during wartime: How does one create detachment and perspective in a milieu fraught with immediate danger? Fueled by desperation and given to constant reassessment of the need for personal boundaries, Ora might be the most fully realized character in Grossman's body of work.

The novel can be read, heartbreakingly, as a parental eulogy for a son. But although the proper nouns of conflict are mostly elided, Grossman's lament is clearly linked to Israel's national quagmire, one that cannot be resolved with wishful thinking. Ora's attempted reconstruction of a broken family reflects the crippling disjunction between political willpower and pesky demographic realities: "If you will it, it is no dream, as Herzl said, but what if you stop willing it?" she asks. "What if you can't be bothered to have the will anymore?"

Gottlieb is a critic whose work appears in the Nation and Dissent.