Tuesday 31 January 2012

The End of the Land?

I've read David Grossman in the past - not always easily: literature, not entertainment.

Again a book about ending, about life and death.

I was given his latest book,To The End of the Land, in a small paperback edition, with a flowery cover, poppies, I think, a cheerful red. Then I spotted the book elsewhere, in the Jonathan Cape edition. It is larger, easier to read. On the black and white cover, a deep window-less aperture in a stone wall - an abandoned Arab house on the Golan Heights ? - frames the small silhouettes of a couple, a man and a woman, seen against a white sky. I bought that book, traded the other one in.

I can understand the flowers, but not forgive them. I noticed the same kitchiness on the cover of Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness: the copy I'd bought showed a young boy reclining in a field with a book, in a golden glow. As if the illustrator had been told - 'Reminiscences of boyhood' - and nothing else. Friends owned a hard-cover version by a different publisher, with a dull photo of a young boy walking by peeling walls in a city, the photo carrying a sense of menace. Much better. My copy has disappeared, someone has not returned it - I don't mind. As time passed, it offended me more and more.

In this book, the wild flowers are described exactly as the couple wander through the Galilee - the way an Israeli nature-lover would describe them. Of course the woman is a nature-lover, as well as being in Flight from a Message - (the Hebrew title).

I once worked with a client like this woman: from a war-torn country, she had somehow been exported here as a refugee, her two daughters remaining behind with her husband and his second wife. She was as they say, 'beside herself' with worry about the girls, spent her days in ceaseless walking over the hills around our town, tortured by terror about their fate, irritable and angry. In this book, Ora feels she has to leave in order to avoid/to prevent the death of her younger son. (My clients' daughters arrived safely after many months of anguish).

I've read several reviews of this book - one by a Patricia somebody, is a litany of complaints because she does not understand the culture in which the author is writing. Indeed for a non-Israeli, some work will be required - but then, Wikipedia is at your fingertips and most of the code words - names of villages, names of people - will be listed. For anyone with an Israeli connection, this book is very clear.

For those who carry Israel in their heart, the book is also painful. For I believe that when he calls it To The End of the Land, the author is showing how this may lead to the end of the dream - can Israel survive these losses?

Despite visiting Israel recently, I find that I now understood Israeli reality differently. For instance, why my brother-in-law was not keen to eat in a restaurant. The atmosphere of fear generated by suicide bombers. The soldiers' pitilessness. The Arabs' hatred. The desperate, frantic way many people live.

Some reviewers say that Ora's life appears overly narrow; I would disagree: this is what happens in moments of crisis - the only people who matter are those to whom you are very close.

Grossman does a wonderful job portraying Ora's feelings, though maybe he does go on for a little too long. The writer Avram comes to life - Ora's husband Ilan less so. There are moments which remain in the mind - the four-year old who learns about meat, the Palestinians in the school at night, and the scenes on the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. I admire the way he unwraps the story little by little, giving hints and clues and allowing links to emerge gradually, as in real life. It is satisfying to experience.

I think that this book will endure and gain weight, as time goes on and its prophetic voice emerges more strongly.

David Grossman speaks about this book here.

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