‘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)
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…

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