In the Name of the Mother

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BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 9, 2010

In the Name of the Mother

To the End of the Land
By David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen
(Knopf, 577 pp., $26.95)

There are three major Hebrew novels that record the anguished way-stations of the Zionist experience: S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, a masterpiece published in 1945, which deals with the early settlers in the first decade of the twentieth century, when he himself came to Palestine; S. Yizhar’s vast stream-of-consciousness novel The Days of Ziklag, which appeared in 1958, and focuses on the Israeli War of Independence; and David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (the original title in Hebrew was A Woman Fleeing the News), which came out two years ago and engages the condition of living in Israel in the era of terrorism and the occupation. To the End of the Land is Grossman’s most powerful novel—often emotionally painful in its power yet rich in a complex sense of life that goes beyond the terrible pain that it represents.

Since Grossman’s language is so supple and so resonant, let me say at once that Jessica Cohen has done a remarkable job in rendering it in English. She beautifully captures the evocativeness with which the Hebrew is used to describe landscapes, feelings, and bodily sensations; the vivid colloquial register that she creates for the extensive dialogues is exactly right; and she demonstrates great resourcefulness in inventing English equivalents for the witty wordplay in the Hebrew. It is marginally annoying, precisely because her translation is so good, that every fifty pages or so her English momentarily goes off the rails. One encounters such oddities as a “shepherd with his herd” (instead of “flock”); a “power diffuses their bodies” (obviously, a mistake for “suffuses”); “tighten ranks” (instead of “close”); “pleasure gurgles into the corners of her eyes” (the Hebrew verb mefakeh means something like “seeps”); “pigeonholes” for the dug-out body shelters in the inner walls of a military stronghold. All these would have been eliminated if there still existed an institution of competent copy-editing in American publishing, but in any case they are infrequent blemishes in a translation that splendidly conveys the liveliness and subtlety of the original.

To the End of the Land treats several intertwined subjects. The most salient of these is the anxiety, or even dread, of life in Israel in the age of the intifadas, with a corresponding surge in the predominance of militaristic thinking. This predicament is depicted through the perspective of a mother, and the experience of motherhood and family takes up much of the book. The mother is Ora, who is part of an intimate three-way relationship so unconventional that it would be misleading to call it a triangle. Given the complications of the plot, some summary is necessary in order to explain how these topics play out in the novel.

The book begins with a long prologue set in the isolation ward of a hospital in the middle of the war in June 1967. Three sixteen-year-olds, Ora, Avram, and Ilan—the link between them is subliminally reinforced by the fact that in Hebrew their names all begin with the same letter, aleph—have been quarantined with a highly contagious disease. Cut off from the world, they pick up snatches of reports from the Hebrew-language transmission of Cairo radio that Egyptian troops have overwhelmed the country and that Israel no longer exists. One of the two boys sneaks into Ora’s room, afterward bringing the other with him. They both fall in love with her, and at the same time they begin to become fast friends with each other. Over the next four years Ora chooses Ilan as a romantic partner, but eventually she also becomes Avram’s passionate lover.

In the war in 1973, in which Ilan and Avram are stationed by the Suez Canal a short distance from each other, Avram is captured. The Egyptians realize that he is in intelligence, and so they subject him to brutal interrogation, hideously torturing him, beating him, raping him. After six weeks he is flown back to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange—he is a physical shambles, whispering in a terse sentence that he wishes he had died in Egypt. Ora and Ilan, who have married, have a baby boy named Adam, but both are obsessed with the plight of their mangled friend, and they take turns going down from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in order to nurse him. Ora, ­after two years during which Ilan has for the time being left her, largely because he is haunted by Avram’s fate­, goes on one of her visits to see Avram. When he tells her he has discovered that he is impotent, she deploys the sensual resourcefulness of an experienced woman to arouse him, and she conceives a child by him. This second son, Ofer, is raised by the now reconciled Jerusalem couple, Avram refusing to see him or even to hear about him.

All this constitutes the background of the woman’s flight from the news. The twenty-one-year-old Ofer, just discharged from his military service, volunteers to go back on a combat mission in the occupied territories. His mother, terrified that he will come to harm, superstitiously decides that if she is not home to receive the notification of her son’s death, the army’s grim messengers will never come to her door. She sets off on a hike through the Galilee on which Ofer was supposed to have accompanied her, stopping in Tel Aviv, where she virtually kidnaps Avram to come along with her instead of their son. Their trek through the northern part of the country then takes up the rest of the novel, though the often strenuous walking is combined with emotionally freighted talking that reaches back into the past. Ora is determined, in part out of a fantasy that her narrative will somehow keep Ofer safe, to transmit to Avram—at first against his wishes—the concrete reality of his son’s life from the womb to the present.

One of the most striking accomplishments of Grossman’s novel is its success in representing a mother’s experience. I can think of only a very few other novels by men that do such a persuasive job of entering into a woman’s point of view. This success is strategically important in regard to the larger political themes of the book. Ora is by no means a post-Zionist or anti-Zionist—at one point she even expresses contempt for what she sees as the ostentatious self-righteousness of the leftist women protesting at checkpoints—but she is viscerally, obsessively a mother, and in this role she provides an acutely critical perspective on the macho culture of the Israeli military. Having lived for over two decades with three males, feeling an increasing sense of exclusion from their alien male solidarity, she perceives the army as a final stage in the harsh and irrevocable separation of son from mother: “She knew full well from her experience with Adam, who had been out of the army for three years, that they don’t really come back. Not like they were before. And that boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized—lost to himself, too.” Grossman displays an extraordinary ability to translate perceptions of this sort into physical sensations, as in the moment Ora embraces Ofer when he comes home from duty for a weekend: “Her fingers would recoil from the metal of the gun slung over his back and search for a demilitarized space on that back, a place that did not belong to the army, a place for her hand.”

From everything I have said so far, it may seem that this novel is exclusively devoted to the Israeli predicament, to life in what the Israelis call ha-matzav, “the Situation,” and that as such it is chiefly of interest to readers elsewhere as a probing revelation of Israel’s national quandary. There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole story. Ora’s narrative also leads the book into the representation of a universal experience rarely explored by novelists. By and large, children in novels are used as props for the adults, like lapdogs in nineteenthcentury British fiction, except for the cases where a child’s viewpoint is adopted (as Grossman did brilliantly in the first section of See Under: Love). Parenthood in novels is usually peripheral to other roles played by adults, unless the novel is concerned with a conflicted or psychologically fraught relationship between parent and child. The full spectrum of the experience of being a parent has not been a common object of novelistic attention, and that is what Grossman gives us compellingly through Ora’s narrative.

Grossman has an uncanny ability to recall in total vividness all the meaningful moments in the life of a child from infancy on—the moments that most parents almost forget. Here, for example, is Ora’s recollection of the newborn Ofer’s hand: “with the deep crease around the wrist, and the bold red of the tiny hand itself, which until moments ago had been an internal organ and still looked like it. The hand slowly opened and revealed to Ora for the first time its conch-like, enigmatic palm—What have you brought me, my child, from the deep, dark universe?—with the thicket of lines drawn all over it.” Then the hand, in an infant’s reflex, closes around her finger, imparting the thrilling sensation that new parents know, and Ora thinks, “You are hereby betrothed to me with the wisdom of thousands of years and ancient epochs.” Or here is Ofer at the age of one, swung around by his mother, lying on her back, on her upturned feet and arms in a game of airplane: “He laughed and his whole body quivered, and his fine halo of hair softly fell and rose as he sailed. The sunlight coming through the window shone through his ears, and they were orange and translucent.”

Such passages are saved from sentimentality by the extraordinary concreteness with which they are imagined—the toddler’s ears, orange and translucent in the sunlight, sticking out (as we learn in the next sentence) from his little head. The head, which becomes big-boned and powerful looking in the grown-up Ofer, is later an object of bemused contemplation for Ora: “She stands there wondering when he had time to develop bones like that and how this head could have passed through her body.” That last clause is another small token of how fully the novelist has entered into a woman’s imagination.

I have illustrated the persuasiveness of the mother’s narrative that Ora spins out with three instances of wonder and elation. But the story that she tells Avram is protected from any slippage into sentimentality also by its range: it is not in the least limited to the raptures of parenthood. We are constantly reminded also of the tribulations of parenthood—that raising a child is a trying, messy, and sometimes troubling business, as the child inevitably grows away from his mother, and enters into conspiratorial solidarity with his sibling, and develops tics that baffle and worry his parents—in Adam’s case, a period of months when he will speak only in rhyme, and then a set of obsessive gestures accompanying all his daily acts, from which only his brother can finally rescue him.

If parenthood holds deep satisfactions, it is also one of the most challenging tasks that any of us ever undertakes, and Ora is constantly aware of the steep challenges, and of the punishment she has absorbed in struggling to meet them. Here is a characteristic passage that the most ardent feminist writer could scarcely equal: “A skilled sponge. Most of what she’d done for twenty-five years was mop up everything that poured out of the three of them, each in his own way, everything they spat out constantly over the years into the family space, namely into her, because she herself, more than any of them, and more than the three of them together, was the family space.” This self-perception also reflects the fact that her narrative of Ofer is also, necessarily, a narrative of the whole nuclear family, in which, over time, the dynamics shift back and forth. “A family is a perpetual occurrence,” she proposes at one point, and the strength of the narrative that Grossman has devised for her lies partly in its ability to convey this sense of changing occurrence over twenty-five years of family life. Like parenthood, this is not a subject that novelists commonly treat.

This family story unfolds, of course, in a country unlike our own, where young men walk around in khaki uniforms with automatic weapons slung over their backs and where every time you take a seat at a café or on a bus you might nervously wonder whether you are about to be blown to smithereens. Yet Grossman’s handling of child-rearing under the pressures of the Situation often makes one feel that it is, after all, like child-rearing everywhere. Ora remembers six-year-old Ofer asking her, as she is riding him to school on her bicycle, “Mommy, who’s against us?... Who hates us in the world?” This is the kind of question that children often ask, for which there is never a good answer. “And of course you want to keep his world innocent and free of hatred, and you tell him that those who are against us don’t always hate us, and that we just have a long argument with some of the countries around us about all sorts of things.”

In Israel, one must grant, such a question has definite geopolitical ramifications, and the little boy compels his mother to list for him all the countries that are directly hostile to Israel and then all the countries that are Arab or Muslim. Still, the tenor of the child’s anxious question is a familiar one. We lamentably inhabit a world in which terrifying things happen from which we would like to shield our children. But we cannot simply exorcise crime and hatred and corruption and violence, and so we are sometimes obliged, like Ora, to tell our children comforting half-truths, knowing perfectly well that in the end they will grow up to live in full consciousness of the world’s dangers and its ineradicable evils. In this way, the trials of motherhood that Ora experiences are both distinctively Israeli and also the trials of motherhood everywhere, writ large.

The story of Ofer that Ora tells Avram is intended, in the manic impulse of her maternal superstition, to ward off harm from her child. But she also means it to foster in Avram a sense of connection with his son that he has resisted for twenty-one years. Ofer’s fate at the end is never spelled out—despite the wrenching fact that David Grossman’s own son was killed in action in the last hours of the war in Lebanon, when a draft of the novel was almost finished—so we do not know if the charm works. What does work is the progressive engagement of Avram in his son’s life. He has never really recovered from his shattering ordeal as a prisoner of war. He had been an exuberantly intellectual young man with grand ambitions to become a writer. After his return from captivity, he can neither write nor recover any sense of purpose. He supports himself by washing dishes in a restaurant, and his sole intimate relationship is with a quirky bohemian girlfriend much younger than himself who is intermittently present in his life.

Avram offers Ora a stark summary of himself late in the novel: “Nothing really hurts you and nothing really makes you happy. You live because you live. Because you happen not to be dead.” Her perception of him, earlier in the book, aptly complements this dire statement of his sense of his life: “He had looked so distorted, she thought, like a boy playing with pieces of himself.” Grossman is too good a novelist to suggest that Ora’s story of Ofer “redeems” Avram from his existential bleakness, but after a while Avram does begin to manifest a degree of animation, a growing interest in Ofer and in Ora’s whole family, that are very different from the uncommunicative self-imposed isolation in which we first see him in his wretched Tel Aviv apartment.

All the talking, then, in To the End of the Land proves to be remarkably resonant and, in regard to Avram, efficacious as well. But what about the walking? There is a paradox at the heart of the novel. By going on the hike and dragging along Avram, Ora wants to insulate herself from Israel and everything going on in it: the military action in the Occupied Territories, the country’s addiction to the hourly news reports, the endless noisy discussions of national politics. Avram, for his part, has long since withdrawn from any sense of connection with the collective realm, hunkered down in his meager living-because-he-lives, befuddled by a steady dose of painkillers and sleeping pills. Yet their trek through the woods and the fields of northern Israel is a long encounter with the landscape of the country, rendered in loving detail by Grossman, and it confirms a sense of intimate attachment to it. This intimacy is reinforced by their feeling that they are virtually alone in the natural landscape, a feeling interrupted only in two episodes in which they encounter two very different, and bizarre, hikers.

Grossman finely renders the natural world in which they are immersed through the prism of their perceptions and their states of being:

Daylight burgeons as they lie on the edge of a field, bright shades of green unfurl as far as the eye can see, and they wake from a nap, still blanketed with a gossamer of dreams. They are the only two people in the world, there is no one else, and the earth steams with a primeval scent, and the air hums with the rustle of tiny creatures, and the mantle of dawn still hangs overhead, lucent and dewy, and their eyes light up with little smiles of not-yet-fear and not-yet-themselves.

The passage incorporates a delicate reminiscence of the Garden in Genesis 2, where a moistness wells up from the earth (and the Hebrew for “primeval scent” idiomatically uses the term bereishit, which is the very first word of Genesis). But even in this moment of euphoric awakening in nature, we are not allowed to forget the terrors with which both characters live: they sense freshness and renewal in part because they are not fully awake, and thus still in a state of “not-yet-fear and not-yet-themselves.”

The immersion in nature, understandably, contributes to a gradual awakening of desire in these two people who have not been lovers for more than two decades. Several days into their hike, Avram suddenly asks Ora, “Do you think we’ll ever sleep together?” He then embraces her.

He presses her against his body and she feels his force. She thinks again of how much good this journey is doing him, and her.

They walk on, at first hand in hand, then they let go. Threads of new awkwardness stretch out between them, and nature itself winks behind their backs and plays nasty tricks on them, scattering yellow clods of asters and groundsel, blanketing purple clover and pink flax, erecting stalks of huge—but smelly—purple arum flowers, sprinkling red buttercups, and hanging baby oranges and lemons on the trees around them.

    “Very arousing,” Ora says. “This walk, and the air. Isn’t it? Don’t you feel it?”

    He laughs, embarrassed, and Ora—even her eyebrows suddenly feel warm.

In such passages, Grossman maintains a nice balance between a lyrical evocation of the presence of nature and the mixed emotional condition of the characters that even in these moments is by no means an undiluted lyrical state. The emergence of desire in the natural setting is accompanied by awkwardness and embarrassment. The aphrodisiac magic of nature is perceived a little ruefully by the characters as playing nasty tricks on them. If those huge stalks of arum flowers might tempt a reader to imagine a phallic image in the manner of D.H. Lawrence, we are also pointedly informed that they are rancid. When Ora calls the walk and the air “very arousing,” she is expressing something she actually feels in both of them, but the remark is also a little playful, perhaps even ironic. The sensation of warmth extending all the way up to her eyebrows—Grossman is especially good at imagining physiological correlatives to feelings—is a mingling of arousal with embarrassment.

The experience of nature on this long hike through the Galilee, in a way that is related to the representation of motherhood, never slips into cheap feeling or into the easy exploitation of nature as a spiritual prop, because the novelist never forgets that the two characters have been bruised and branded by decades of living in an impossibly difficult place, and they carry with them their own dread, their own somber musings on life, for which nature, however stirring or enthralling, can offer no sure antidote:

The air bustles and hums. Flies, bees, gnats, grasshoppers, butterflies, and beetles hover and crawl and leap from the foliage. There is so much life inside every particle of the world, Ora thinks, and this profusion suddenly seems threatening, because why should the abundant, wasteful world care if the life of one fly, or one leaf, or one person, were to end at this very moment? The sorrow of it makes her start talking.

The natural world is the scene of pullulating life and stirring desire, but it also leads Ora to reflect on the paltry place of humanity in the vast scheme of earthly things, and on the fragility and the transience of any living creature (including, of course, her beloved son). “The sorrow of it makes her start talking”: this is a kind of motto for Ora’s enterprise as the narrator of her son’s life. It is also a clue to Grossman’s impetus in writing this novel, even before the contours of the book were retroactively made still darker by his son’s death.

To the End of the Land is an emotionally trying experience to read—one Israeli friend told me she repeatedly found her eyes welling with tears as she read. It indelibly etches the fears of those who live in the unending Situation, fears that will not go away. Yet it is not a bleak novel. It provides a persuasive intimation of some possibility of renewal after great devastation. It makes us feel love—a mother’s love for her children, a woman’s love for two men—as a force that, though it cannot offer protection from the violence of history, can sustain a person in living. And the focusing of the story through a mother’s consciousness and memories anchors everything in a strong sense of the quotidian, making it all imaginatively accessible.

Two kitchen scenes, one early in the novel and one near the end, are quintessential embodiments of this strength. In the first, Ora, after having taken Ofer, in a car driven by her Arab driver (a serious mistake, she soon realizes) to his military assembly point, stands peeling a potato, lost in troubled thought about soldiers and armored vehicles and weapons, “the dark, calculated, formal course of the larger system.” Distraught by these somber musings, she lets the potato drop from her hand. It rolls off the counter and into a space on the floor between the refrigerator and the wall, “where it shines with a pale glow as she leans on the table with both hands and stares at it.” In the later scene she is chopping salad (Israelis like diced vegetables) and begins to hack violently as she angrily thinks of all the political leaders and combatants—first Arab, then Israeli—who have perpetuated and sustained this incessant condition of mutual mayhem. Her attitude toward the lot of them sounds like the reflex of an irritated housewife: “Did they really do everything they could so she could get five minutes of peace and quiet around here? All those people who razed her life, who keep nationalizing another one of her children every second.” If the first of these scenes expresses a moment of despair, the second reflects a stubborn inner resistance. It is important that both take place in the kitchen: in the face of constant warfare, the mother, after all, has to continue providing for her family, nurturing it with meals and with love, however relegated she may be by culture and politics, as she says, to the sad role of a sponge.

To the End of the Land is the definitive novel of the present Israeli condition, but it also powerfully addresses feelings and fears and relationships that should be familiar to readers everywhere. The magical realist Grossman of See Under: Love has evolved over the years into a masterful realist concerned with psychological nuance and the complexities and ambiguities of personal relations. This is his finest achievement to date, and, in my own experience as a reader, one of the best novels that has appeared in any language over the past decade.

Robert Alter’s The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary has just been published by Norton. This article ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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posted in: books and arts, from the back of the book, tel aviv, ofer, israel, army, avram, david grossman, ilan, jessica cohen, ofer, ora

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