I haven’t discussed a translated book in awhile, but I’ve read a couple lately that I enjoyed so I’m bringing this series back for a reprise. To the End of the Land is the story of friendship, family and Israel. It follows Ora and Avram as they hike and Ora tells Avram the story of their son.
Grossman’s book To the End of the Land kept me on the verge of tears. What made the book universal for me was a mother letting go of her son. The theme of saying goodbye was heart-wrenching. I don’t have to send a son I’ve raised with empathy and care into a war zone at age eighteen, but I do have a son leaving for college in 17 months and life will not be the same. Our relationship will change, my role will be different. There will be joy and loss in that process. Reading To the End of the Land stirred the grieving that accompanies this transition.
Grossman’s characters live with a constant sense of the fragility of life. Another universalism, that we could all get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, feels heightened in Grossman’s Israel. The randomness of pulling a name out of a hat, the name picked is tortured by Arabs, the one not is tortured by guilt. Whether or not the bus you’re riding on will be bombed, or the one passing you in cross traffic. The fear of both sons partying at the same bar because it could be the one a suicide bomber visits that night. Americans don’t live with that same day-to-day fear. Not only do the characters, and presumably Israelis, live with the underlying fear of random death, there is a sense that the nation could cease to exist:
“Look at them,” Avram had said to her once, in one of their drives around the streets of Tel Aviv after he got back. ”Look at them. They walk down the street, they talk, they shout, read newspapers, go to the grocery store, sit in cafes”–he went on for several minutes describing everything they saw through the car window–”but why do I keep thinking it’s all one big act? That it’s all to convince themselves that this place is truly real?”
“You’re exaggerating,” Ora had said.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Americans or the French have to believe so hard all the time just to make America exist. Or France, or England.”
I grew up in a world where Israel existed, it never occurred to me that a country, especially an ally, could disappear until I attended a lecture a few years ago given by an Israeli political scientist. The room was filled with about 200 senior citizens, mostly Jewish. The lecturer asked how many people thought Israel would not survive and a significant majority raised their hands. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that many believed the state of Israel was a phase; it was not permanent. I thought of that room when I read the above passage. The conscious effort to make Israel real is strikingly different from the unarticulated fundamental belief that the United States is permanent.
I wonder if this fear and mindset heightens the sense of life in Israel. If so, I didn’t get that impression from Grossman’s book. The richness of family life is well relayed, but not an exuberance. Grossman’s main characters are very insular. My primary criticism of this wonderful book is that the characters sometimes felt flat. I don’t think it’s because of it being translated, I believe it is a result of the private world Grossman creates for them. Ora, Ilan and Avram bond in the hospital when Israel is under attack, in a fever, in the dark. There are only the three of them for the first section of the book, the lone Arab nurse is down the hall. The balance of the book permeates with a world limited by this character triangle. It is expanded by the the birth of Adam and Ofer but always feels in reference to just the three of them. Never seeing Ora outside of these relationships, never with a girlfriend or at work, left me feeling like she was a conduit the author used to stir emotions in me rather than a fully realized character.
Grossman leads the reader on a thought-provoking journey filled with emotion. This isn’t a fast read, it’s paced to match the walk. It’s a trip I’m willing to take over and over again.