Well, this is lovely — after complaining that I had not read many truly wonderful books this year, I am ringing out December having just finished an ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS novel.
It’s To the End of the Land, by the Israeli writer David Grossman. I would call it one of my four favorite books of all time.
Here’s the 10-second plot synopsis: Ora is a middle-aged mother of two whose younger son is called up for additional military service right at the end of his three-year stint. In a burst of magical thinking, she decides to prevent his death by cutting herself off from the world and hiking the length of Israel: If she’s not there to answer the door when officers bring the terrible news, he will remain alive. Ora ends up taking along the man who used to be her husband’s best friend, and at times her lover, but who has lived in an isolated shell since being tortured as a POW in Egypt in the 1973 war. As they walk across the Galilee, Ora tells Avram about her sons and her marriage, and Avram starts to reconnect with her and with life.
It’s a hard book to read, or at least to start — Ora seems so crazy that at the beginning I had trouble feeling sympathy for her. But it quickly pulled me in, and the past few days I found myself purposely not reading it for fear of reaching the end — wanting to draw out my walk alongside Ora and Avram as long as possible.
Grossman writes with depth and insight on so many levels — motherhood, the inner life of a marriage, friendship, love. One of the jacket blurbs described it as an anti-war novel, and that didn’t really make sense to me until about halfway through, when like an increasingly heavy weight, you start to see how the pressures of Israel’s endless state of war distort and ravage Ora’s marriage, her family, all of life. It’s an anti-war novel where 90% of the story takes place far from any battlefield, in bedrooms of four-year-olds or in fields of wildflowers.
One example: A scene where Ora is describing her attempts to answer her six-year-old son’s questions about Israel’s enemies — a geopolitical reality that we tend to take for granted until seeing it through a child’s eyes.
“What do you tell a six-year-old boy, a pip-squeak Ofer, who one morning, while you’re taking him to school, holds you close on the bike and asks in a cautious voice, ‘Mommy, who’s against us?’ And you try to find out exactly what he means, and he answers impatiently, ‘Who hates us in the world? Which countries are against us?’ 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, just like children in school sometimes have arguments and even fights. But his little hands tighten around your stomach, and he demands the names of the countries that are against us, and there is an urgency in his voice and in his sharp chin that digs into your back, and so you start to name them: ‘Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon. But not Egypt — we have peace with them!’ you say cheerfully. ‘We had lots of wars with them, but now we’ve made up.’… But he demands precision, a very practical, detail-oriented child: ‘Is Egypt really our friend?’ ‘Not really,’ you admit, ‘they still don’t completely want to be our friends.’ ‘So they’re against us,’ he solemnly decrees, and immediately asks if there are other ‘countries of Arabs,’ and he doesn’t let up until you name them all…
“She tried to reassure him: ‘We have a strong army, and there are some very big and strong countries that will protect us.’ Ofer treated this information with skepticism. He wanted to know where exactly these friendly countries were. Ora opened an atlas: ‘Here’s the United States of America, for example, and here’s England, and here are another few good friends of ours.’ She quickly waved an overgeneralizing hand near a few European countries that she herself did not particularly trust. He looked at her in astonishment. ‘But they’re all the way over there!’ he shouted, in disbelief at her stupidity. ‘Look how many pages there are between here and there!'”
So it’s about the ravages of war, about what living in a militarized society means for relations between men and women, about the skewed power relationships between Jews and Arabs within Israel… but it also has the most beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the land as Ora and Avram make their way across northern Israel.
Terebinth trees. Poppies. Cyclamens. Mountaintop views of glistening fish hatcheries and blossoming peach orchards… Grossman uses the land’s beauty as a counterpoint to the messy scars of people and war, continually playing in the background, never at center stage but always there. The land sparks wars. The land heals. The land abides.
Grossman writes on so many levels: A love song to the land. An exploration of the universal passion and pain of motherhood. The damage — direct and indirect — inflicted by war and occupation.
This book makes me want to run out and read the other things he’s written.
It also makes me think about how war, rather than peace, may be the default state of humanity. And how lucky I am to be living in this fragile little bubble of peace and security.
So happy 2011! May we push the needle a little more towards the peace end of things for everyone on this planet, including Israelis and Palestinians.
And my advice for the new year… To your list of resolutions, add one more: To read this book.
P.S. This is my 98th blog post. Any suggestions for what we should do to celebrate number 100?