The Yellow Wind
by David Grossman, Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 216 pp., $17.95
For its special issue published on Israeli Independence Day in May 1987, Koteret Rashit, a sophisticated Israeli magazine of the liberal left, commissioned a report on daily life in the occupied territories from a talented young Israeli writer, David Grossman. Grossman was the only Israeli novelist who had previously crossed the so-called Green Line in his fiction, particularly in short stories that are set in the West Bank. An Israeli-born Ashkenazi who speaks fluent Arabic—a rare breed in Israel—Grossman took a taxi to the West Bank every day for forty days. He did not go to Gaza. This fact is not accidental. Before the recent uprising the Gaza strip did not exist in the minds of most Israelis, even in the mind of a writer who took it upon himself to explore the repressed zones of the Israeli national consciousness.
Koteret Rashit asked for ten thousand words, but Grossman wrote far more. The entire magazine for that week was devoted to his story. The issue’s success was phenomenal, at least for Israel. A great many educated Israelis spent the Independence Day weekend reading Grossman’s article. Thus the book became a best seller before it was published; and its success, I think, tells us something about the situation in Israel before the recent uprising.
There were those who thought that his report did no more than preach to the converted; but it did not preach, and, moreover, the converted were not so convinced. Its appeal for many Israelis was that Grossman made them feel that he had undertaken the trip to the West Bank that each of them should have taken but knew they would never take. Then, too, it gave the impression that somehow there was no more need to go there: Grossman had done it for them. And the reason why he succeeded had much to do with the descriptive and distinctly “non-political” tone of his narrative.
Grossman’s report projects the tone of calculated naiveté of someone who, like Cary Grant in a Hitchcock film, unexpectedly finds himself a witness to strange and sinister events and is determined to tell what he has seen and heard. The clichés of regional politics are replaced by Grossman with detailed description, in which he draws on his own family for comparisons. An old woman in Deheisha resembles his Polish grandmother; a noble, bitter Arab reminds him of his father. It’s all in the family, in the mythical Family of Man.
I was not enthusiastic about Grossman’s report on that Independence Day a long year ago. At the time I thought that it provided an all-too-convenient moral escape hatch, providing a Victorian catharsis that was philanthropic more than political. I was wary of rereading it. Whatever force it had had then, I thought, would now have vanished. But I find the book has more vitality and greater insight than I thought when I first read it in Koteret Rashit. True, Grossman did not predict the uprising …