Friday, February 25, 2011

Tellings stories to keep a son alive (Books - To the End of the Land by David Grossman)

When Ora's son Ofer decides to stay beyond his required military service in the Israeli army to serve in an important military mission rather than hike with her in the Galilee, Ora feels hurt and deserted. She commandeers Avram, her husband's best friend and her old love, who has been living on the fringes since his capture and torture in the Yom Kippur War, to hike with her in a desperate act of avoidance. If she is not there to receive the news that Ofer has been killed, she reasons, he is not dead. She can indefinitely keep him alive by telling the stories of Ofer, his brother Adam, his father Ilan, and herself, to Avram. This is story telling as an act of defense. People approached with love are bottomless, says David Grossman's powerful new novel To the End of the Land, no matter how much you know, there is still more. This act of desperate story telling doubles as an act of intimacy, because Avram has missed out on Ofer's childhood, refusing to see him even though he is actually Ofer's father.
Thousands of moments and hours and days, millions of deeds, countless actions and attempts and mistakes and words and thoughts, all to make one person in the world.

She reads it to Avram.

"He'll be fine, you'll see. We're making it so he'll be fine."

[...]

"One person, who is so easy to destroy. Write that."

He writes.
This book, in some ways, is nothing more than the act of trying to capture a life, hold it still so one can appreciate its beauty, yet those things that make it most beautiful aren't there when you hold them still. Grossman captures both the sweetness and regret which, for Ora turns to loss, when Ofer returns to the army. He writes with directness that is visceral, delicate, and complex.
Two decades earlier, in the garden at night, in the middle of hanging up the boys' clothes, Ilan had walked through the crowded lines and hugged her, and they had both rocked together, entangled in the damp laundry, laughing softly, sighing lovingly, and Ilan had whispered in her ear, "Isn't it, Orinkah? Isn't it the fullness of life?" She had hugged him as hard as she could, with a salty happiness pulsing in her throat and had felt that for one fleeting moment she had caught it as it rushed through her, the secret of the fruitful years, their tidal motion, and their blessing in her body and his, and in their two little children and in the house they had built for themselves, and in their love, which finally, after years of wandering and hesitating, and after the blow of Avram's tragedy, was now, it seemed, standing up on its own two feet.
At the same time, Ora and Avram, walk a trail that circumnavigates their country, acquiring a knowledge of their country which neither of them had had before. Grossman does not makes this Israel a symbolic or one-sided representation, it includes Jew and Palestinian,peacenik, military zealot, and those who are ambivalent and tormented by guilt . The others they encounter on the trail - the hippy guru and his followers, a widowed Dr. interviewing each person he meets on the trail, and particularly the wild dog which ends up becoming subdued as she follows them, give the tail a classic epic quality. The dog, particularly, seemed almost the mirror spirit of Ora herself - from wild to domestic, as Ora profresses from domestic to wild.

We come to know all the characters in To the End of the Land deeply and richly. Many others have written about the monumental creation of Ora, comparing her to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, so I thought I would focus my thoughts on Avram, also a strikingly well-written, uncliched character, who strongly evoked a few intensely creative misfits I have known in my life. He seemed a creative act of love and I wondered of his origins. Admirable and pitiable. A deeply original spirit, instilling the love of others, but not because he is physically attractive. Rather because he is prolific, brilliant, playful, but also deeply afraid, childish, demanding, his brilliance finally holding others at a distance.
"Even before Ofer was born, ever since the war, since you came back, I've lived with the feeling that I'm always being watched by you."

There. She'd told him what for years had embittered and sweetened her life at the same time.

"Watched how?"

"In your thoughts, in your eyes, I don't know. Watched."

There were days - but of course she will not tell him this, not now - when she felt that at each and every moment, from the second she opened her eyes in the morning, through every motion she made, every laugh she laughed, when she walked and when she lay in bed with Ilan, she was acting a part in his play, in some made sketch was writing. And that she was acting for him perhaps more than for herself.

"What is there to understand here?" She stops and suddenly turns around and unwillingly hurls at him: "It's something Ilan and I felt all the time, all those years - that we were acting out a play on your stage."
This is a potent scene, perhaps the one that stayed with me most even after nearly 600 pages of text. In some ways, Avram took on the spirit of Israel in the book - an alluring, inspiring presence that elicits the passion of others, but also consumes them to protect itself.

It is impossible to read David Grossman's To the End of the Land now without knowing that, while writing it, his son Uri was killed while doing his military service. In some ways To the End of the Land is a deeply political work. Born of grief and anger at continued aggression as the only solution. There is a particularly memorable segment in the book that struck me as arising from the madness of grief. Set around a series of bus bombings, Ora compulsively rides the buses, trying to fit herself into the head (perhaps) of a bomber.

However, despite its length and sweep, and its complex reckoning with the legacy of war upon which the existence of that nation (some say) survives, Grossman's book finally treats Israel as a character, and in so doing becomes an intimate work. One about the struggle to encompass the complexity of others deeply.

Here is my other post about To the End of the Land.

5 comments:

Sam Sattler said...

I'm so disappointed with myself...really struggling to get into this book and I keep reading rave reviews everywhere I turn. I'm stalled at about page 140 at the moment but plan to give it another try this weekend.

Ted said...

Sam - After the initial memory sequence in the hospital, it took me a while to take to Ora, but once we were on the road I couldn't stop. I found the book well worth it.

Sam Sattler said...

Ted, that's exactly what I'm finding. I picked the book up again a couple of days ago and found that I've been through the hard part...no likable characters.

Now, some 150 pages deeper into the book, those same characters are being fleshed out so well that I either like them or at least understand better why they are the way they are. It's a deeply layered book, and I'm finally getting it.

Ted said...

Sam - Glad you've taken to it!

Stefania said...

I really want to read this one day. It sounds like a powerful book and one that makes you think.