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Fleeing Bad Tidings: David Grossman's 'To the End of the Land'

It’s one of those impassioned antiwar books which has taken literary critics and activists worldwide by storm. A novel which has been nominated for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, and which now, finally out in the paperback English translation, continues to be praised internationally. Of the few books Obama chose to take along to his summer holiday in Martha’s Vineyard, David Grossman’s To the End of the Land was included.

Grossman has written this novel with the pain that only the parent of a soldier could muster, with a fervent hope for peace and an alarm for the future of his country, in long sentences as complex and rugged as the setting itself.

Set in Israel in 2000, the novel centers around Ora, emotional and thoughtful, and the two men who love her: Ilan, practical and ambitious, and Avram, adventurous and ingenious. Ora decides to marry Ilan, with whom she has a son, Adam, but later with Avram has a second child, Ofer, who is raised as the son of Ilan. As the boys grow older, the married couple grows apart; Ilan leaves Ora, with their older son in tow. Ora, in the meantime, bids goodbye to Ofer as he volunteers to extend his army service and serve in Jenin for an additional month.

Yet after saying goodbye, something inside Ora (motherly instinct, paranoia, superstition, who knows) tells her that she had just said farewell to her own son, and her thoughts turn to the messengers that are bound to come any minute with the news of her son’s death.

It’s mesmerizing to read Grossman’s perfect writing, the way he captures the stream of consciousness of a mother of a soldier. While standing in the kitchen, preparing meals for a son she’s convinced will never return, Ora wonders, “What if they come in the middle of the potato? Ora thinks and stares at the large spud lying semi-peeled in her hand. Or in the middle of the onion? It gradually dawns on her that every movement she makes may be the last before the knock on the door...there’s no reason to panic yet, but the thoughts crawl up and wrap themselves around her hands as they clutch the peeler, and for an instant the knock on the door becomes so inevitable.”

In a moment of sheer impulse and fear, Ora gathers herself and leaves the house, realizing that it is best if she is not home to receive the news. “That notification will never be given, because notifications always take two, Ora thinks – one to give and one to receive – and there will be no one to receive this notice, and so it will not be delivered.” Thus she sets off, on a hike throughout the north of Israel, far away from messengers and radio and television, taking along the one person who she hopes will understand her fears, Avram, father of the son she is trying to keep alive.

Yet Avram is not the clever young man of Ora’s youth; after surviving horrific tortures in a POW camp during the Yom Kippur War in Egypt, Avram is a shadow of his former self, a shattered man and social recluse who refuses to have anything to do with his friends or even his own son, Ofer.

In their quixotic journey throughout the Galil, Ora and Avram explore both the land as well as each other’s traumas. Both are scarred by war and fear, both have grown weary of conflict.

The author lets the characters grow intimate with the reader: one is afraid for Ofer’s life, awaiting Ora’s foreseen notification with bated breath. One mourns Avram’s brokenness and sympathizes with Ora’s illogical premonitions. And one is afraid for Israel, as the characters get lost in the terrors of daily life: a whirlwind of constant ambushes, shootings, bombings, and as Grossman emphasizes, of constant reprisals.

But perhaps what is most chilling about this work of fiction is not the tragedy or war that it paints, but actually its nonfiction, the grim reality lurking behind the lyrical prose.

As Grossman explains in the afterword, he began writing To the End of the Land in 2003, a year and a half before his son Uri was drafted into the Israeli army. “I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him.” In August 2006, Uri was killed in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War. After shiva (the formal mourning period) ended, Grossman returned to the almost-complete book. “What changed, above all,” he writes, “was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

The echo of reality is unmistakably there, as one reads Grossman’s stirring story. The novel is permeated by the understanding that it is not merely a novel, but an unintentional memoir; it’s a story which tragically transformed a writer of fiction into a mourning father, rendered almost speechless in the face of his own haunting words.