Journey to the heart of this land

David Grossman’s latest work, ‘To the End of the Land’ not only tackles Israel’s collective trauma but also delves into the author’s personal loss.

Grossman 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Grossman 311
(photo credit: MCT)
TO THE END OF THE LAND By David Grossman | Translated by Jessica Cohen | Knopf | 576 pages | $26.95
According to recent research a significant portion of Israel’s population has been exposed to traumatic events at sometime or another throughout the country’s 62 years, with quite a significant number of people going on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
This little-known and often-ignored fact comes across extremely clearly in author David Grossman’s latest novel To the End of the Land, a highly reflective and sometimes garish commentary on Israeli life, culture, history and the collective mind-set.
In the book, whose Hebrew title is Isha Borahat Mibsora (A Woman Flees [Bad] Tidings), the main protagonist, Ora, certainly suffers from some form of PTSD and Avram, her former lover and father of one of her two sons, definitely has an extreme version of it.
Grossman, who wrote the book while his two sons successively served in the IDF and finished the final draft after the younger, Uri, was tragically killed in combat during the Second Lebanon War, is also no doubt in a state of emotional trauma. And, from the tears I shed while reading this book, I’m guessing that I too might have some degree of PTSD.
Truthfully, To the End of the Land shook me to the core of my being, not only for its unforgiving observations of the Israeli mentality and communal brainwashing or because it revisits almost all the wars and conflicts since the founding of the state, but for the mere fact that it embodies every parent’s worst nightmare: the fear of losing a son in battle.
Moreover, it fearlessly examines that loss weighed against a nationalistic ideology that you aren’t entirely convinced you agree with.
The plot focuses on Ora as she decides she must somehow flee the army “notifiers” who will surely come knocking on her door with news of the death of her youngest son Ofer, now taking part in a hyped-up military offensive.
Ofer, who had been set for his final release from the army, unquestioningly heads back to participate in the “campaign,” leaving Ora climbing the walls and eerily imagining the flashing lights of an army convoy outside her window preparing to bestow her with bad tidings.
If she is not there to answer the door, Ora reasons, if they cannot find her, then there can be no bad news, right? Her anxiety is maddening and her only option is to flee her Jerusalem apartment and head up to the northern tip of the country to start a hike that she and Ofer had been planning to take after his release. On the way she picks up, literally, her former friend and possible soul mate Avram, a severely traumatized war veteran, who is Ofer’s biological father.
In the book’s real time, the story takes place as Ora and Avram hike their way back from “the end of the land” to Jerusalem, with Ora along the way therapeutically sharing with Avram stories about Ofer, the son he has refused to acknowledge since conception.
As this takes place on the surface, Grossman also chronologically tackles each of the country’s wars starting with the Six Day War in 1967 up to the present day, where he dares to delve into the complex relationship between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Perhaps one of the most haunting episodes is the taxi ride taken by Ora during her escape from Jerusalem. After insensitively using Sami, her longtime “friend” and Arab driver, to take her and Ofer to the gathering point for the offensive, Ora begs him to take her for a second time that day.
He eventually agrees on condition they make a stop in an Arab neighborhood in Jaffa. With an extremely sick Palestinian child suddenly thrust into her care, Ora vicariously experiences the extreme human suffering of victims from the other side of this conflict. Even though this happens early on in the book, the silent suffering of so many people in a moonlit Arab school is an image that is hard to shake.
It is not only the intrinsic relationships between Israelis and Arabs or even between humans and war that Grossman expertly explores, he also delves into the complicated energies between men and women.
While at times it is obvious that rough and tough Ora – as a fictional female character – has really been created by a man, the complicated love triangle she shares with Avram and Ilan, the husband who has just left her, manages to propel the story along and push it into a realm much deeper than fiction.
It is this shift from fiction into reality that brings the book to life as the reader shares Grossman’s own personal tragedy in losing his son. In the closing pages, a note from the author about Uri’s death reads: “I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him.”
He goes on: “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.”
The twist that a story about a woman escaping the bad tidings brought by army notifiers somehow became real for Grossman and his wife, Michal, has created an international buzz around To the End of the Land. Reviewed over the past few weeks in publications around the globe, Grossman has received glowing acclaim for this work.
Obviously, right-wingers in this country and the pro-Israel lobby worldwide might find fault with his musings or observations of Israeli culture and public attitudes but at many points throughout the work he accurately sums up our collective brainwashed mind-set. This comes through especially clearly in the scene where Ora describes Ofer’s meeting point for the military campaign: “It is all a huge, irredeemable mistake. It seems to her that as the moment of separation approaches, the families and the soldiers fill with arid merriment, as if they have inhaled a drug meant to dull their comprehension...”
Grossman is brave in attempting to confront such jingoism and, of course, is even braver in confronting his own loss. One of the reviewers wrote that this revered author deserves a Pulitzer Prize for his work and after making my way through this intensely reflective mosaic of a novel, that might not be far off the mark.