To the End of the Land David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Cape, pp.576, 18.99

In this long and fascinating novel, Ora, an early- middle-aged Israeli woman, walks for days through Galilee to escape the ‘Notifiers’, the officers she fears will come to her door to inform her of the death of Ofer, her soldier son, at the hands of Palestinians.

In this long and fascinating novel, Ora, an early- middle-aged Israeli woman, walks for days through Galilee to escape the ‘Notifiers’, the officers she fears will come to her door to inform her of the death of Ofer, her soldier son, at the hands of Palestinians.

David Grossman, one of Israel’s leading writers, relates in a note at the end of this novel that while he was writing it he discussed how it was progressing on the phone with his soldier-son Uri, who would ask him about the characters, ‘What did you do to them this week?’ ‘At the time, I had the feeling — or rather, a wish — that the book I was writing would protect him.’ When the book was nearly finished, Uri was killed in action. Grossman writes, ‘I went back to the book … what changed above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was finished.’

Before her flight from possible news of Ofer’s death, Ora badgers her ex-lover, Avram, into going with her. He is also the ex-best friend of her estranged husband, Ilan, who has gone to South America with her other son.

Avram, always pretty peculiar, is damaged in mind and body. Years before, he was freed from his captivity in Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur war; suspected of being an army intelligence officer, he had been tortured, buried up to his face and raped. Ora and her husband cared for him during his long, incomplete recovery.

After his release, Avram momentarily resumed his relationship with the married Ora; she became pregnant with the son whose death she now fears. Her husband urged her to keep the baby, whose origin they kept secret and whom they treated as their own. Always alienated from his past life, Avram made occasional telephone calls to Ora to hear news of his son, and on the day Ofer was scheduled to be discharged he calls again, only to be told that the young man had volunteered to remain in the army.

Grossman’s account of Ora and Avram’s lengthening flight from their painful lives is a tour de force. Told primarily by Ora, the story is a male author’s insight into the mind and emotions of a woman. One thinks of Anna Karenina, and this novel can bear that comparison.

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During the walk, Ora ‘realises what she’s been doing here all those days: reciting a eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again’. But she has also dragged Avram along ‘to tell him the story of Ofer’s life, the story of his body, and the story of his soul and the story of the things that happened to him’.

Apart from his evocation of a woman’s life, here are two ways that Grossman shows his mastery — I use that word deliberately — of his craft. He tells us what we need to know primarily through acts and speech, rather than through description, always the mark of a poor writer — except when the description itself comes before us as unique to the character. When Ora considers her life, hers are the considerations of an impatient, dissatisfied, loving wife and mother, and the exasperated lover of Avram. Living in a house with two sons whose bond is unbreakable, and a husband who usually allies himself with them, she thinks of

finding herself faced with three rebellious adolescents who act angrily and impudently — the toilet seats were always left up in bold defiance — and she wishes she knew what it was about her that aroused this idiotic, infantile compulsion.

‘If I’d had a daughter,’ she tells Avram, ‘I think it would have strengthened me against them, the three of them, and maybe it would have softened them a little toward me.’ A daughter, after all, was someone with whom you could go to the bathroom.

Avram, unwilling to be dragged out of himself until late in the journey, declines to see a snapshot of his son. He thinks of Ofer as

a vague and elusive picture that constantly squirms in his soul as Ora speaks. And she is telling me a story about him now. I’m hearing Ora’s story about Ofer. All I have to do is hear it. No more. She will tell the story and then it will be over . . . I can think about all sorts of things in the meantime.

Grossman can toss off a description with (seeming) ease: Ora watches Avram’s shadow in front of her as they walk:

When Avram waves his arms as he walks, it briefly looks as though he is placing his hand on her shoulder, and when she plays with her body in the sun a little, she can make the shadow of his arm hug the shadow of her waist.

Another sign of Grossman’s mastery is his ability to introduce story after story during the walk without showing the seams, without making them into a jumble: Avram in the Egyptian jail; Ora’s soldier-husband’s hair-raising attempt to find him in the middle of the war; the obsessions of her two sons; the gallery of characters who appear on the walk, all make their memorable imprint and disappear.

Then there is the world of the walk; the world of non-observant Jews like Ora and her family; the world of Sami, her Arab driver and friend, who tells Ora that Jewish logic defeats him:

During the day you’re always checking us and following us and going through our underwear, and at night you suddenly give us the keys to your restaurants and your gas stations and your bakeries and your supermarkets.

And there has to be at least one Jewish joke: Ora and Ilan are wondering what would have happened if, before the founding of Israel, the Jews had accepted a British offer of a Zionist state in Uganda:

Ora laughed. ‘And then we’d have to occupy Tanzania.’
‘And Kenya and Zambia.’
‘Of course, just to protect ourselves from their hatred.’
‘And teach them to love Israel and give them a little Yiddishkeit with chicken soup.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Fiction, Historical fiction, Israel