An Act of Remembrance
Anthony Domestico March 14, 2011 - 11:01am
To the End of the Land
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 576 pp.
At one point in David Grossman’s new novel, To the End of the Land, Ora, the heroine, recalls a routine she developed years ago with her then-three-year-old son, Ofer. First, Ofer would solemnly announce that he had a story to tell. Then, he would stare into the distance, as if gathering strength for a long oration. Finally, “his face would take on a ceremonial look, he’d fill his lungs with air and say in a voice hoarse with excitement: ‘And then...’”
And that is it; the ceremony is completed, the story finished. Ora, herself a wonderful storyteller, appreciates her son’s precocious understanding: “And then, and then.... That’s the main point in stories, isn’t it?” Ofer has identified the reason that stories are so easy to begin and so hard to end—there is always another “and then” to be added. His “story” hints at the infinite expansiveness of all stories, the ability of narrative to endlessly defer ending.
To the End of the Land, originally published in Hebrew, is an exploration of how we try to use narrative to defer that most final ending: death. The novel’s main action takes place in Israel in 2000. Ofer, older, still thoughtful, but hardened by his time manning checkpoints and participating in raids, has just completed his three-year military service. He and his mother have long planned a hike through the hills of Israel to celebrate the occasion. At the start of the second intifada, however, Ofer decides to re-enlist. Ora, convinced that every noise she hears is the sound of military “notifiers” coming to tell her of her son’s death, has a sudden thought: if she is not home to greet these harbingers of death, then Ofer cannot die. She decides to go on the hike by herself, without a phone or any source of news.
Despite this imposed isolation, Ora is not completely alone. Before starting her walk, she stops to pick up Avram, her former lover. He is a pill-popping, solitary mess; he’s also Ofer’s father. In his youth, Avram was a poet and playwright, magnetic and intensely alive. Then, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War*, Avram was captured, beaten, and electrocuted, finally forced to dig his own grave while his sadistic captors snapped photographs. He was rescued, but the damage had been done. “Avram no longer wanted to live in a world where such a thing was possible,” Grossman writes, so he “let go of his life.” He refused to meet Ofer—the boy doesn’t even know that Avram is his father. He stopped writing and cut himself off from the rest of the world. Ora has to practically kidnap him from his dumpy apartment in Tel Aviv in order to enlist him on her mission.
As they begin their trek, another magical thought occurs to Ora: as long as she keeps talking about Ofer, as long as she can string together “and thens” ad infinitum, her son will be safe. If he’s the subject of a story, then his story cannot end. As a result, Ora’s epic walk turns into an epic act of remembering. She recalls family dinners and birthday parties; she remembers Ofer’s first steps, his first girlfriend, and her own late-night walks with her husband, Ilan. She also remembers painful moments: her failures as a mother, the multiple times Ilan left her (the last time for good). Memory becomes a way of acknowledging loss but refusing to end one’s story with it.
Telling stories also becomes a way to coax Avram back into life. “He may never be able to or dare to connect himself to Ofer,” Ora realizes, “but he certainly can and will connect to the story of Ofer.” Her strategy works. Avram begins to ask questions about his son and about Ora’s life with Ilan. He also tells of his own experience in the intervening years: the odd jobs, the various apartments, the tortured memories. As he tries “to weave his threads into her tapestry,” a fragile yet hopeful love grows again between these two damaged souls.
In the past, Grossman has held out hope that literature, and storytelling more broadly, could possess some salvific power. In the novel for which he is best known, See Under: Love (1989), Grossman turns a children’s writer and Auschwitz prisoner, Anshel Wasserman, into a modern-day Scheherazade. Each night, he must tell Neigel, an SS officer and the commander of the camp, a new episode in his “Children of the Heart” series, in the process “infecting Neigel with humanity.” In To the End of the Land, Grossman is less romantic yet still hopeful about the power of words. Stories cannot save lives, but they can offer loving witness to the past. On the book’s final page, while Ofer’s fate remains unclear, Ora charges Avram with a sacred trust: “You’ll remember Ofer, his life, his whole life, right?”
Grossman first gained international acclaim (and national censure) for a work of nonfiction, The Yellow Wind (1988), which unsparingly examined life in the Israel-occupied West Bank and Gaza. In To the End of the Land, his attention to detail is exquisite, from his evocation of Israel’s beautiful yet war-scarred countryside (Ora notices “those little flowers, yellow and white chamomile blossoms that look like they were drawn by children, and cistus shrubs, and hyacinths, and pale blue stork’s bill, and the beloved Judean viper’s bugloss”) to his piercing descriptions of the “daily humiliations, large and small” of Palestinian life in Israel. A brief portrait of Sami, Ora’s Arab driver who “preserve[s] within his fleshy thickness a flame of delicate irony,” is remarkable in its sensitivity.
But the novel’s greatest achievement is Ora. Her particular manner of thinking is vivid and fully imagined, as is her physical life: we see her nursing, hiking, swimming, making love. In particular, Grossman attends to Ora’s experience as a new mother, how Ofer “held entire conversations with her just by gurgling and looking,” how the infant’s utter dependence leads to both “desperate helplessness” and, on occasion, “a thrilling moment of eternity.”
Tragically, the boundary between literature and life was blurred during the novel’s composition. In an afterword, Grossman writes that his youngest son, Uri, was killed in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War on August 12, 2006. “After we finished sitting shiva,” Grossman writes, “I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.” As Grossman and his characters know, tragedy cannot be endlessly deferred. But it can be remembered, and this act of remembrance can offer consolation, however temporary, amid the suffering.
* The print version of this review incorrectly gave this date as 1967.