To the Land of the Dead

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Peter Boer/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
David Grossman, Amsterdam, mid-1990s

“I once thought of teaching my son a private language,” writes Yair to Miriam, a woman he barely knows but engages in a passionate correspondence, in David Grossman’s Be My Knife.

Isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth, so he would believe only the language I gave him. And it would be a compassionate language. What I mean is—I wanted to take him by the hand and name everything he saw with words that would save him from the inevitable heartaches. So that he wouldn’t be able to comprehend the existence of, for instance, war. Or that people kill. Or that this red, here, is blood.

The longing of parents to protect their children, and their inevitable failure to do so, lie at the very center of Grossman’s fiction. It is, of course, a universal theme: even where life does not show its most savage side, parents learn the pain of helplessness. But for Grossman, who was born in Israel in 1954, that pain takes on the starkest and most violent forms, thanks to the course of Jewish and Israeli history. In the Holocaust, millions of Jewish parents saw their children murdered; over the course of Israel’s wars, tens of thousands of parents sent their children to die in combat. No wonder a man like Yair would dream of severing his son’s connection with his society at the root, which is language—in his case, the Hebrew language. Seceding from Jewish history offers the illusion of protection, which he knows he can never offer his child in real life.

No such secession is possible for the characters in Grossman’s two masterpieces, See Under: Love and To the End of the Land. These books are as different as the work of a single writer could be. The former, published in Hebrew in 1986, is like the work of many young writers an artist’s bildungsroman, deeply if not literally autobiographical. It is also wildly ambitious and inventive, pushing back against the constraints of realism and making free use of myth, fable, and magic; the extreme darkness of its themes, above all the Holocaust, is set against the joyous freedom of its techniques. To the End of the Land, which appeared in Hebrew in 2008, is by contrast an autumnal work, soberly realistic for the most part, in which two middle-aged friends review their own troubled relationship and the way their lives have intersected with their country’s.

Yet both these books are focused on the damage that results when parents fail, despite their best efforts, to protect their children from history. See Under: Love takes the child’s view of this failure. Its hero, Momik Neuman, grows up in Israel in the 1950s as the child of terrified and secretive Holocaust survivors, who think that their silence about what happened “Over There” will protect him …

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