In 2006, three years into writing To the End of the Land, David Grossman’s 20-year-old son Uri died in the Second Lebanon War. In the epilogue to this grave and haunting work, Grossman writes that when he began the novel in 2003 he had a ‘feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him’. The author failed to shelter his son; but his grief imbued his words with an echo of authenticity so heart-rending that, on occasion, reading To the End of the Land is physically painful.
In the novel Ofer, a young Israeli just released from his army service, volunteers for emergency action rather than going away on a planned hike with his mother Ora. Grief-stricken, Ora journeys to the ends of the land, to Galilee. She takes along Avram, Ofer’s father who he has never met, a shadow of a man left destroyed after his brutal torture 30 years earlier in the Yom Kippur war.
As they walk, the former lovers carefully expose and unravel themselves again, cautiously teasing out moments and memories from the past before drawing back into the parched present. The walk is both a punishment (a self-imposed purgatory for Ora’s powerlessness to protect her flesh and blood) and a shamanistic attempt to keep Ofer alive: as long as Ora walks and talks, giving birth to her son over and over again with words, she fervently believes he cannot die.
Grossman weaves a feverish power into this story of anguish and remembrance. The novel starts with the three pivotal characters – Ora, Avram and second love-of-her-life and estranged husband Ilan – meeting as teenagers when high with fever in a Jerusalem hospital that has been evacuated during the Six Day War in 1967. Groping in the dark, their tentative three-way friendship and blossoming love soon give way to the guilt – and a moment of unintended betrayal – that shapes the course of their lives.
Above all, To the End of the Land explores the madness of warfare. When Ofer is born, Ora jokes to Ilan: ‘Here you are my darling, I’ve made another solider for Tzahal [the Israel Defence Forces].’ The ability of the state to take away, nullify and nationalise the men in her life consumes Ora. From her illness to the feral dogs that prowl Galilee, there is an urgency and pulsating sickness that seems to grab and grasp at the book.
Ora is the soul of the novel and as a heroine she can be both brilliant and deeply unsympathetic. She longs for Ofer with a desire that is Oedipal and her memories of breastfeeding are almost erotic. While she defines herself as liberal, she treats her Palestinian-Israeli driver, Sami, like a stubborn child and becomes, against her better judgment, furious at the Palestinians for taking away her son and forcing him to go to war. With these emotional and political swings, Grossman captures the complexity of the Israeli psyche.
But while Grossman has the ability to write with unusual beauty, he also grinds so deeply into Ora’s consciousness that it can suffocate the prose; every thought, action and memory is turned over, examined, described and put away. The result is wearing, and the plot often feels sluggish, with little of the humour that makes everyday life bearable. In a scene that has the potential to be thrilling – when Ora and Avram are attacked by dogs in the wilderness – there’s little action; just a long-winded narration of Ora’s thoughts.
If relief is to be found, it is in Grossman’s masterful descriptions of the land, which is rich and plump, occasionally biblical, and a love ode to Israel. He imagines a scene where Israelis are exiled, travelling in a procession along the spine of the land. The novel is not simply an outpouring of grief for one lost life, but for the land itself, ravaged and scarred by war.
To the End of the Land is an onerous read. But Grossman – recently awarded the German Book Trade Peace Prize for his literature and peace activism – never intended it to be easy. As Ora goes through her heartache, we feel it with her every step of the way. In the end Grossman succeeds in showing the ‘thousands of moments and hours and days … that make one person’. And, ultimately, how one person is so easy to destroy.