Freedom’s Dark Double: David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

Posted on | October 14, 2010 | Comments Off

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land has the improbable distinction of being the second novel in as many months to make me cry.  (I should qualify this by saying that I rarely weep over anything so serious as novels; I usually reserve my tears for sitcoms.)  The other was Freedom. These twin totems of the fall publishing season, it has since occurred to me, share certain very superficial similarities, and not just having to do with page count and overtaxed lacrimal glands.  Each has at its center a nuclear family of four in which the parents’ marital calculus is thrown off-balance by their best friend, in both cases a less-than-stable artist-type.  Each uses the disintegration of a family as a measure of national decline—Franzen of the US, Grossman of Israel. where is the best place to play craps online

I admit I may be forcing the comparison, but I couldn’t help but read To the End of the Land in Freedom’s shadow.  Their common features make the difference in the political climates the novels address that much more stark. Freedom, as I’ve already explored, diagnoses the relative burdens that come with American liberties.  To the End of the Land, Israel’s equivalent masterpiece, shows us what happens without them.  If Freedom is, obliquely, a political novel, George Packer, in his recent profile of Grossman in the New Yorker, places To the End of the Land in a separate category: “it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions into ‘the softness of life.’”  Even without reading Franzen, the idea of freedom—or really, its absence—hovers over To the End of the Land. It’s a story of what it is to live in a land that may not even exist tomorrow, a land that knows too well the easy credit and debit of human lives.

Told chiefly from the perspective of Ora, a middle-aged mother, the novel accompanies her as she hikes part of the length of Israel in the company of Avram, her estranged friend and erstwhile lover.  She has separated from her husband Ilan, and her younger son Ofer has just volunteered for a special combat operation at the moment his mandatory military service should have ended.  Nearing fifty, Ora’s life remains shaped by the events of her youth, which are the same events that shaped the young country.  The three friends—Ora, Ilan, and Avram—are a delicately calibrated trio.  Avram is in love with Ora, who is in love with Ilan but sometimes sleeps with Avram.  During the Yom Kippur War, both Ilan and Avram, serving in the same army unit, ask Ora to draw lots: one of them will be granted leave, the other forced to stay.  Ora calls Ilan home, and sends Avram off to battle, where he is captured and tortured in an Egyptian POW camp.  And with that her fate, and her family’s, is written.  Theirs has been a haunted life.

To the End of the Land, according to Packer, is a deliberate effort to combine “two spheres: the first was the ha-matsav [the situation], with its existential fear; the second was the life of an Israeli family.”  In Grossman’s own words, “It tells about three wars, the conflict and the occupation and all that, but what really interests me is the nuances of the family.”  I could open the book to any page and find a scene where political and domestic life spill into each other, but perhaps the most gutting in a book of gutting moments is one where Ofer, then six, begins to piece together the reality of living in a country always under threat:

A few days later he asked her to show him the countries that were “against us.”  She opened up the atlas again and pointed to each country, one after the other. “Wait, but where are we?” A glimmer of hope shone in his eyes: Maybe they weren’t on that page.  She pointed with her pinky finger at Israel.  A strange whimper escaped his lips, and he suddenly clung to her as hard as he could, fought and plowed his way to her with his whole body, as though trying to be swallowed up in it again… Sharp sweat, almost an old man’s sweat, broke out all over his skin.

Maybe I just haven’t read enough Israeli literature, but it’s hard to imagine it sharing the epochal features of our own literature.  Any First Intifada Novel, any Six Day War novel necessarily looks back to the country’s origins in a way our literary monuments to 9/11 and Vietnam don’t have to.  Israel’s history, at least as far as the state is concerned, is too recent to dice into convenient chunks.  Ora, in her middle age, has borne witness to nearly the entire arc of Israel: her parents’ generation, unable to speak of the horrors they escaped in Europe; her own, born into the hubris of conquest only to realize the damage they have wrought; her children, fighting the same battles as if by rote.

Freedom’s privilege is not its fault; it’s its subject.  But it’s still an artifact of the world it describes, and after reading To the End of the Land, I found myself holding Franzen’s, well, freedom against him.  Grossman lives in a world that could not produce that book.  He lives in a world where freedom is not a given, and where, as Ora says of the land, “Every encounter…is also a bit of a farewell.”  I’ve never read a book written with such open wounds (and I suspect I would have felt this even without the tragedy that lingers always in the novel’s background: Grossman’s own son died in the Second Lebanon War, during the writing of this book).  In Packer’s profile, there’s a sentence describing Ora that I misread:  “She won’t collaborate with her fate.”  Or that’s how my mind, stumbling too quickly forward, finished the sentence.  It actually reads, “She won’t collaborate with the state.”  For Ora, for Grossman, they’re one and the same.


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