TO THE END OF THE LAND
by David Grossman
In his essay, “Writing in the Dark,” David Grossman says, “I have a distant ally who does not know me, and together we are weaving this shapeless web, which nonetheless has immense power, the power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute and to bring about tikkun — “repair” — in the deepest, kabbalistic sense of the word.” Grossman tirelessly explores the idea of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians as a human, one-to-one discovery and dialogue. His fiction too wants to make repair. To The End of the Land, his remarkable 2010 novel, tells of a journey through a family’s past, a love affair between a woman and two men, and a literal hike across the country of Israel, shot through with peaceful homes and beribboned with war zones.
The novel opens in a flashback to 1967. Three Israeli teens — Ora, Ilan and Avram — are recovering from hepatitis in a deserted quarantine ward. Ora and Avram become companions in dark solitude, learning by listening. Avram leads Ora to a third teen, Ilan, in a coma in a hospital bed. From there, the three enter an enduring, complicated, and ultimately saving ménage a trois. Ilan is handsome and mysterious, and Ora falls in love with him on the spot. Avram, shorter, less attractive, feels sidelined. Eventually, he will force Ora to decide which man she will stay with.
In 2000, Ora, now separated from Ilan, estranged from her oldest son Adam, and mourning the re-enlistment of her younger son Ofer in the army’s border guard, sets off on a physically daunting hike across Israel, to escape what she fears is the imminent arrival of soldiers to inform her that Ofer has been killed. In her mind, by walking, “she will be the first notification-refusenik.” Her journey across Israel is a psychic trip back in time, as she recruits her former lover and best friend Avram to accompany her.
Avram had been captured, interrogated, and tortured by Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War. At home, the Israeli authorities also interrogate him, suspicious about what he might have divulged. Out of touch with Ora and Ilan, Avram drops out of the world, abusing marijuana and sleeping pills. Ilan says Avram “just turned himself off and he’s sitting inside himself in the dark.”
It is Ora who is the compelling central figure here, as the novel is an exhaustive portrait of her personality. She is having an extended, literate nervous breakdown, “reciting a eulogy for a family that once was, that will never be again.” Her tone can be annoying and excessive but is redeemed by love. “You’re an unnatural mother,” her son Adam tells her, but she is only too natural. Ora thinks Israel, by taking her youngest son Ofer, has “nationalized her life.” During Ofer’s first term of service, Ora becomes paranoid about people’s faces on the streets, fearing suicide bombers, and she begins randomly riding city buses, as if she could be a lightning rod and deflect the random chances of terror her son faces every day.
Ora uses the weeks-long hike to slowly bring Avram up to date on her sons. Clues quickly emerge to suggest that Avram has more of a stake in Ora’s family than he knows. In a patient and beautiful fashion, Ora paints a verbal picture of their lives, and Avram slowly begins embracing it.
The other surprise Ora has for Avram is how Ilan went back and searched for him, after Avram was wounded and left behind, lying in a ruined, abandoned stronghold surrounded by Egyptian forces. Her revelation takes place right after Ora and Avram make love again for the first time on the trail; the power of that timing is significant, as Ilan first told her about his rescue attempt the morning Adam was born, before they left for hospital. Thus unfolds one example of Grossman’s exquisite layering of past and present tense. Avram is broadcasting on a busted radio transmitter, and Ilan hears his feverish outpourings as he weakens and the enemy closes in.
Eventually, Ora succeeds in re-connecting Avram to her family. The argument Grossman makes is that humans will succeed because of the intricacy of our hearts, the amount of detail we pluck from our memories and shower upon the world. If humanity heals, it will be from the inside out. Ora “converts” Avram to being human again by the sheer mountain of anecdote and detail she shares about her sons’ lives.
Growing up, Ofer emerges as Avram’s true son in Ora’s depiction: like Avram, he is sensitive and strange. When his brother Adam exhibits frightening OCD behaviors as a young boy, Ofer intuitively begins aping them, and asking Adam which of the tics can be his, Ofer’s, habits. He gradually assumes the lion’s share of them, blocking Adam from doing them, and miraculously cures him.
Grossman’s allegory — the hike across Israel is an attempt to make sense of the country’s history and the history of Ora’s loves — is built upon a juxtaposition of present narrative and past recollection. Weaving together characters and dialogue in the present and past tenses, as he did in his 1989 masterpiece, See Under: Love, Grossman makes history continuous. Real time is a compressed dream-space where duration of experience is nothing compared to depth of emotion.
On the hike, Ora digs a hole and tries to bury herself in it, triggering Avram’s memory of three times being forced to dig his own grave in Egypt during his captivity.
The physical journey Ora and Avram take becomes Eden-esque; they might be the first man and woman in the world. Avram says, “I mean the walking itself, where you have to go from point to point, you can’t skip anything. It’s like the trail is teaching us to walk at its pace.” Late in the novel, Ora is trying to describe to Avram the sounds of their different steps on the trail: “It’s a good thing they have all the right sounds in Hebrew.”
Avram counters, “Do you mean these paths speak Hebrew? Are you saying language springeth out of the earth?” And he runs with the idea that words had spouted up from this dirt, crawled out of cracks in the arid, furrowed earth, burst from the wrath of hamsin winds with briars and brambles and thorns, leaped up like locusts and grasshoppers.
Ora responds, “I wonder what it’s like in Arabic. After all, it’s their landscape too…”
This edges as close to the political as Grossman gets, but it feels closer to the truth than an overt political argument. Metaphor is key to Grossman. People have outdoor names: Ofer (fawn), Ilan (tree), Ora (light). Ora and Avram are attacked on the trail by a pack of wild dogs but repel the pack and adopt one of the animals, which proves not so wild at all when alone. The journey also chronicles the history of Israel, as Ora and Avram visit biblical and military historical sites. Ora begins a journal of the hike, then loses it. It is found and continued by a pediatrician they meet, who is making a similar hike, interviewing everyone he meets about Israel, asking: “What do we miss most? What do we regret?”
Explicit political argument in the book is rare, but there are nevertheless some striking examples of it in the opening chapters, when Ora is driven around by her Arab driver and friend, Sami. Sami calls his five children his “five demographic problems.” And Ora says to Ilan, when Ofer is born: “Here you are, my darling. I’ve made another soldier for the IDF.”
Ora recalls something Avram once said: “If you look at someone for a long time, at anyone, you can see the most terrible place they might reach in their lifetime.” Not to spoil the novel’s ending, but any critical review of the novel threatens to grind to a halt at the thought of Grossman’s crushing afterword — that he began the novel when his own youngest son Uri was alive and about to begin a tour in the Israeli army, and that he wrote the final draft after Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon: “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.” Having begun the book in autobiographical style, he finished it marred by a tragedy he thought he could only imagine in words.