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A Woman Running from the News’

To the End of the Land

by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Vintage, 651 pp., $15.95 (paper)
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Daniel Bar-On/backyard/Redux
David Grossman protesting in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in support of evicted Palestinian families, September 2010

There is a striking difference in register between the titles of the Hebrew and the English versions of David Grossman’s lengthy, ambitious novel. The portentous literary title in English stakes an epic claim; it has the grandiloquence that reminds one of titles like Gone with the Wind or From Here to Eternity, the refusal of specificity (think of The Good Soldier Švejk, Nana, or Hard Times) that insists this will not be the story of a mere individual or event, but one on the scale of “humanity,” of “everyman.” By contrast, the simplicity of its Hebrew title—“A Woman Running from the News”—announces another novel altogether, a realist novel of contemporary life, the story of a particular person at a particular moment.

The difference in the tone of the two titles mimics a struggle within Grossman’s novel between the author’s epic and realist intentions, a struggle on which the novel ultimately founders. Despite passages of courageous beauty, the work never quite becomes a coherent creation. It is a novel that, like its heroine, flees as much as it seeks.

The epic note may be more comfortable for an Israeli novelist, since it is the timbre embraced, preferred, even required by the Israeli national story, which asserts that the modern state is founded on a timeless destiny. Grossman’s narrative shows the effect of a doctrinal national memory. Reading To the End of the Land feels like being plunged into a stranger’s dream, having to decipher the unfamiliar terrain of someone else’s private symbols and imagery.

The running woman of the Hebrew title is Ora, a member of the Jewish Israeli bourgeoisie of Jerusalem, wife of Ilan, an intellectual property lawyer. She is the mother of two grown sons, the elder, Adam, fathered by her husband. The younger boy, Ofer, is a child conceived with her husband’s best friend and her sometime lover, Avram, once a promising artist, whose life has been irreparably damaged after he was tortured by Egyptian interrogators during Israel’s 1973 war.

Ilan agrees to bring up his friend’s child as his own; Ofer’s real father refuses to see him and is only in intermittent contact with his former close friends. After Adam’s initial years of military service, he and Ilan have quit the household and are touring Latin America together, in flight from Ora. She has learned that Ofer and his army company had maltreated a Palestinian prisoner. There was an inquiry, but after Ilan “gently pulled a few strings,” Ofer had been demobilized without reprimand. Father and both sons characterize Ora’s distress at the incident as “unnatural.”

Nevertheless, Ora plans to celebrate Ofer’s freedom by taking him on a hike through the Galilee countryside. But Ofer suddenly reenlists during an emergency call-up, “insolent and joyful and thirsty for battle,” in order to join his comrades in an unnamed attack on the Palestinian territories. Ora, inescapably apprehensive, sets out to cheat death by refusing to seek any news of Ofer’s fate. She compels her estranged lover, Ofer’s father, to accompany her on the trek that she had planned for Ofer. She becomes gripped by the belief that they can keep their son alive if she remembers and describes every detail of his childhood. Her recital of “the story of his body and the story of his soul and the story of the things that happened to him” is a passionate attempt to create her own book of life, one in which her child will remain inscribed forever. It is, the reader grasps, a futile exercise, not because her son may die—we never learn his fate—but because of Ora’s credulous illusion that she knows her child more intimately than is possible. A mother is not an author; for a child she is part, one part, of the story of the things that happened to him.

These memories of Ofer, and of Ora’s relationship with her two lovers, relived during a camping trip in a nature reserve, take up most of the book; the author presents the story as an epic of maternity. She (and the Jewish male characters) are given no surnames, as if to suggest that this family is archetypal, modern matriarch and patriarchs in a ancient land. The only character given a surname is the family’s private chauffeur, a Palestinian taxi driver named Sami Jubran.

If To the End of the Land is an epic of motherhood, it is emphatically not an intergenerational saga. The parents of the three main characters are dealt with fleetingly; Ilan’s father is an army officer who regularly humiliates his family through exhibitionistic affairs with subordinate women soldiers. Avram’s father inexplicably loathes Avram and abandons the family. We learn nothing more of him. Ora’s Yiddish-speaking mother is described as “from the Holocaust”; we are given no information about her country of origin, social background, or family history. The three adult characters are rootless, despite their often repeated rhapsodies about the landscape and botany of Israel. Adam and Ofer don’t come to life as young men; their contemporaries and their own romances are mere sketches.

This foreshortening has a claustrophobic effect; the boys seem not to exist outside the family, while Grossman’s emphasis on Ora makes her omnipresent. She, in turn, seems unconvincingly fatalistic about their romantic and professional futures. Ofer’s only vision of his grown-up life is to have a “job where they’ll do experiments on him while he sleeps.” Neither parent addresses his aimlessness. They don’t question him about his social life as a soldier, though the army is a fundamental source of business, government, and job networking for Israeli men, who are subject to yearly reserve service until middle age.

The family circle is so tightly circumscribed that even Ora’s lover, Avram, is a quasi sibling. One becomes impatient for a member of this family to exchange a word with anyone outside it. They seem to exist wholly inside their “expansive old…house…surrounded by cypress trees” where the parents sleep in a bed designed and built by their son Ofer. With Ora virtually the only woman in the book and the principal source of perception, Grossman has to stake his story on the success or failure of her character.

Grossman clearly intends to honor and commemorate the quotidian acts of child-rearing—bathing, feeding, nursing, playing, schooling—but his intense focus on Ora monumentalizes her and miniaturizes the descriptions of these actions. As if she were a maternal variation of Midas, everything she touches turns to archetype; she can’t hang a pair of pajamas on a clothesline without evoking a comment about the “fullness of life.”

Ora exists largely through monologue, which creates another set of narrative problems. Her descriptions of her work of motherhood can seem awkwardly self-flattering; when she gains an insight into her troubled older boy, her husband clings “to her with strange fervor, and she thought, a hint of awe.” The boys are described as “joyous young people sprouting between them day by day,” though they seem anything but joyous; the older boy has a form of compulsive disorder, and the younger an obsession with Arabs. Improbably, no rumors reach the boys that they have different fathers; no friend exists to raise an eyebrow when Ora chooses to be incommunicado while her son is in combat.

The novel’s sense of enclosure, of confinement, is present even in the opening scenes of the book. Ilan, Avram, and Ora meet in a quarantined section of a hospital ward—alone except for an Arab nurse who brings them trays of food and medicine, at intervals crying like “an animal wailing.” The teenagers observe her weeping, but never think to speak to her. We assume that this is the moment of Israel’s 1967 war. Grossman declines to place us fully in time or society; the wars blur into a cloudy eternity of embattlement. Yet the author floods us with unexplained particularities of place and association: “the Nachlaot neighborhood”; the “Kerem,” the “Etzel,” the “Machanot Olim,” the “Yesud HaMaale camp”; “Um Juni or Beit Alpha or Negba, or Beit HaShita or Kfar Giladi”; Kinneret, where a volume of poems by a poet named Rahel is chained outdoors for visitors; Ein Karem (the family’s Jerusalem neighborhood); allusions to folk songs about calves that may or may not have special significance.

The reader might not guess that the hiking holiday Ora takes represents a national pastime. Yael Zerubavel’s book Recovered Roots describes how Zionist settlers of the pre-state period were given special classes in local nature and geography, part of a practice called

Yediat ha-aretz (knowing the Land) [that] did not simply mean the recital of facts in the classroom, but rather an intimate knowledge of the land that can only be achieved through a direct contact…trekking on foot throughout the land was particularly considered as a major educational experience, essential for the development of the New Hebrews.

For the non-Israeli reader, the association of hiking with laying claim to the land may be lost.

Trying to get some sense of Ora’s and Ilan’s Ein Karem neighborhood made me understand why Grossman either keeps the family indoors or whisks them out of the neighborhood. Ilan and the older son spend most of the novel touring Latin America, while Ora, Avram, and the phantom Ofer are removed to the pristine, pastoral Israel of a national park. But Ein Karem was once Ain Karim, a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were driven out in 1948. The neighborhood contains “one of the largest concentrations of Palestinian village construction in Israel and the West Bank,” according to a newspaper report, structures that are known to the Israelis as “architecture without architects.” The British Mandate government aimed to preserve Ain Karim, along with the villages of Lifta, al- Malkha, and Deir Yassin; the other three villages were completely destroyed.1 It was apparently a popular, affordable neighborhood for young couples in the 1970s. The older Ilan and Ora would have seen it become the source of intense struggles between preservationist residents and developers. The city government covered over Mamluke and Byzantine remains while the spring, supposedly the site where the Virgin Mary uttered the Magnificat, is now polluted, thanks to the public toilets built next to it.

Ora’s stone house with arched windows and decorative floor tiles must surely be one of the Palestinian villas. There her son Ofer develops a childhood obsession with Arabs, sleeping with a monkey wrench ready to attack them, making his foster father draw up precise population counts of each Muslim country, misspelling Arab “Arob” in his notebooks, “‘cause they’re always robbing us.” In Grossman’s novel, the neighborhood is little more than a name and decor. Without its historical or social setting, we cannot fully grasp what living there might mean. We sense oppressively that we are being told one story to distract us from others.

What is striking in this sprawling novel with its chamber quintet of characters is that each relationship is warped, corrupted, truncated by the life Israel imposes on them. This is as true of the relationships between men and women, adults and children, as it is between Palestinians and Jews.

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    Noam Dvir, “Ein Karem Under Threat,” Haaretz, August 25, 2010. 

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