David Grossman's To the End of the Land is an indispensable guide for those who want to contain in their souls both the triumph and the tragedy that is Israel.
The English translation of David Grossman's To the End of the Land has become a literary event before it has been read, and that is a pity. It is to be hoped that the book will not share the fate of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. As Milan Kundera observed wryly, everybody had views about The Satanic Verses, whether they had read it or not, because Khomeini's fatwa against the book, Rushdie's years of living underground, and the murder of some of his publishers and translators had made the book into a political event.
This will not be easy, because the background story of To the End of the Land is the stuff from which 'human interest stories,' as the media like to call the combination between gossip and emotional melodrama, are made. Grossman started to write the book when his younger son Uri was drafted into the army. Writing the book became something like a magical act through which David Grossman tried to protect his son. And the story of the novel is about a woman, Ora, who is magically trying to protect her son, who is serving in the IDF.
During the second Lebanon war, in 2006, Grossman, together with A.B Yehoshua and Amos Oz, asked Prime Minister Olmert to stop the fighting, which in the writers' view, had crossed the boundary of the acceptable. In the last day of fighting, Uri Grossman was killed, trying to save comrades in another tank.
Even hardboiled cynics cannot fail to be pierced by the tragedy and by the cruelty of the fate of a father who fails to protect his son by the most peaceful of weapons, writing fiction. But Grossman has consistently refused to capitalize on this tragedy politically or personally. He has not turned himself into a victim, whose loss requires everybody to respect his views. He has remained as emotionally precise and unsentimental as ever before.
In To the End of the Land he deals with one of the most charged topics in Israel: the fear and the pain of parents who send their children to the army and the trauma of war. To the End of the Land is one of the most precise portraits of the Israeli psyche ever written. Through Ora who escapes to the north of the country in a desperate attempt to avoid the messengers who might bring her the news of her son's death; through her former lover Avram who has been harmed for life by his harrowing experiences as prisoner of war in the war of 1973, the reader may begin to understand how deep the shadows of war and death penetrate Israelis souls.
And yet, as is his habit, Grossman doesn't succumb to the temptation of self-righteousness and of bombastic ideology at any time in this big novel. He never lets go of human reality as it is, rather than as it is depicted for purposes of political distortion.
Grossman is a demanding writer. He never gives the reader the easy emotional satisfaction of emotional catharsis, of the type of righteousness that the participants and the onlookers of the Middle Eastern conflict love to indulge in. He is utterly ruthless in his demand for emotional truthfulness, all the time avoiding the type of saccharinic pseudo-authenticity that both Israel's self-appointed true patriots and its self-appointed pseudo-moral critics like to don as their favorite outfit.
Grossman's novel, even more than his prose so far, has a purifying effect. The reader, who is willing to stay with him, must go through the arduous process of separate true emotion from bombastic self-dramatization. This is why he didn't change the novel's ending after his personal tragedy. He stayed true to the ethics of his calling, and didn't touch the inner logic of the book's protagonists, particularly its heroine, and its narrative. And that, indeed, is the mark of a great writer.
The book is too good to be overshadowed by the story of its creation, and David Grossman's voice is too important to be drowned by the cacophony of attempts to make political use, and often abuse, of tragedy. Because David Grossman's greatness, for decades, has been, to refuse to be drawn into the clichés dominating political discourse about Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle Eastern conflict
Israel is a place that generates bombastic ideological statements, overblown paranoid fears, and unfettered hatred from many of its defenders and detractors alike. There are those who believe that Israel must be defended by constantly warning the world that the next Holocaust is around the corner; and those who think that Holocaust denial serves their goal to delegitimize Israel's existence; those who insist with breast-beating self righteousness that Israel is always right never mind its actions, to those who explain with no less palatable conceit that Israel is the world's moral nadir.
Israel, in short, is able to bring out political pornography from almost all camps.
David Grossman's fiction and non-fiction is a bulwark against political pornography. He has not shied away from the most difficult topics, including the holocaust, and he has never succumbed to bombastic ideological platitudes or emotional exaggeration.
For those who want to remain as close as possible to Israel's difficult truth and its moral complexity; to avoid the political competition for victimhood and for eternal righteousness, and to contain in their souls both the triumph and the tragedy that is Israel, Grossman is an indispensable guide.