The title of your new novel references the land of Israel, an important concept for Jews. What does the land mean to you?
There are very few places where you can feel such a range of history simultaneously: the historic layers, the collective memory of the people, and the very immediate and energetic current of life. We are walking in places that people in the Bible walked, we are speaking Hebrew. [I wanted to write about] the landscape, the plants, and the colours of the earth and the sky.
And yet the novel follows an Israeli mother, Ora, who embarks on a self-imposed exile to Galilee after her son goes to war…
The tragedy is that for years Jews never felt at home in the world, even in the most hospitable of places. Israel was created to be a home – and yet is it neither a home nor a shelter as it should be. Only when we have peace, when our borders are defined and agreed upon by the world, only then shall we have a sense of the future, of really living. But life cannot just be about escaping. We have gathered this enormous military might exactly so that we shall not have to wander within our own land, so that we can to settle. It’s life on the edge of the abyss.
You often reference a Jewish tradition, the luz, a bone found at the tip of a person’s spine that defines their soul. What is Ora’s luz?
Ora means light in Hebrew, and I think that is her essence. Luz is where the essence of personality is kept: even if a person dies, even if the body is crushed and burned, this always will remain. Someone wrote to me just after the book was published and said: “Ora is a muse for life”. She is such an Israeli character. She can be moral and tender, but at the same time full of rage and aggression, and she makes all sorts of mistakes. Like all of us I think.
And your luz… ?
The desire to create. If I chose one word, it would be imagination.
Another integral character in To the End of the Land is Sami, an Arab-Israeli driver. He is a reminder of your non-fiction work The Yellow Wind (1987), in which you vowed to “direct my gaze at the invisible Arabs [and] face this forgotten reality”. Is this critical for Israel?
Yes. I want to understand, what is this filament that goes inside another human being? What does it mean to be humiliated in a road block? What does it mean that your intimacy can be violated every moment by an Israeli soldier? What does it mean to be humiliated by me? The [Palestine-Israel] conflict is not a football team. In football, you love one team and hate the other. Here you must love, understand or sympathise with both teams if you want to solve it.
You are a political activist as well as a novelist. How do you marry these two roles?
People prefer soldiers, rabbis and muftis to debate politics. But I insist on my right to be part of [the debate]. I have a passion to make the air that I breathe cleaner. It breaks my heart to think how many people are losing their lives, how many people are drained of what life can give them in this terrible catastrophe.
How did Israelis’ react to your new book?
Many people from all different backgrounds wrote to me and told me that this is their book, that I described their story. It’s interesting: I thought I was describing my own story.
In 2006 your 20-year-old son Uri died in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War. You had not yet finished To the End of the Land. And yet you continued to write…
I was not sure I would be able to. But I chose to go back to writing immediately after the shiva (the seven days of lamenting). I always understand what happens to me through writing. This is my way. [Death] makes you feel exiled… writing was a way to create a home again. Creating characters, imagining, insisting on an accuracy of position of certain words – it sounds such a small and stupid thing to do when the whole world falls apart around you. But it has a kind of power of tikkun, from the Kabbalah, meaning a “deep correction”.
David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99).