“The general, almost eternal conflict from which she had disconnected herself years ago kept on making its dark circles, here a terrorist attack, there a targeted assassination, hurdles that the soul leaped over with an expressionless face and without ever looking back.”
I open with this quote and it is a bleak one. There is that spectre of war, of terrorism, that haunts this book. Ora is the mother of Ofer and Adam, and Ofer has just volunteered to rejoin the Israeli army’s offensive against the Palestinians. In Israel, military service is mandatory. And bombs and terrorism are not just what you read in the papers but something that happens on the bus that you just passed, on the street that you take to work everyday. Ora has had enough, and instead of waiting around for the notifiers to turn up at her door to deliver their bad news, she takes off on her hike, a hike she and Ofer had planned to take together before he re-enlisted. Her companion is Avram – her friend, and her husband’s best friend (it’s a love triangle, sweet, sad but true). She is convinced that if no one is there to receive the notification, Ofer will survive.
“All those nights she has spent waiting for them, ever since Adam enlisted and through all his stints in the Territories, and then for the three years of Ofer’s service. All those times she has walked to the door when the bell rings and told herself, This is it. But that door will remain shut a day from now, ,and two, and in a week or so, and that notification will never be given, because notifications always take two, Ora thinks – one to give and one to receive – and there will be no one to receive this notice, and so it will not be delivered, and this is the thing that is suddenly illuminated in her with a light that grows brighter by the minute, with needle-sharp flashes of furious cheer, now that the house is closed up and locked behind her and the phone inside is ringing incessantly, and she herself is pacing the sidewalk, waiting for Sami.”
It isn’t the most exciting of books, I have to admit. A lot of it involves Ora and Avram walking and talking (Ora does most of the talking). But oh, the things they talk about. About Ofer, about Adam, with such love, with such feeling. On their journey, Ora begins to write down her memories, her emotions, an outpouring of love for her children. Time is rather fluid in this book, as Ora tells Avram about her life, her family. And he, eventually, tells her about his.
Grossman began writing this book before his two sons enlisted in the military. His younger son Uri was killed in 2006, and the eulogy was published in newspapers. In the book’s epilogue, Grossman writes that “I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him”. It is impossible to read To The End of the Land without knowing this. I know different readers will get different things out of this book, but for me, it was very much about the realities of being a parent. A roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. And sending your son off to war, is something I cannot imagine. Singapore, like Israel, has mandatory ‘National Service’, but is in a less precarious position than Israel, so while there is ‘preparedness’ in the form of military service for 2+ years for men and then being ‘operationally ready’ reservists after (till about 40 I think?), there is far less likelihood of being called up to defend (or offend).
In an interview with Paris Review, Grossman said: “When I’m writing a book that takes years to complete, I emerge from the last page totally different from who I was on page one. I learn constantly from my books. This is why it takes me so many years to write a novel, because I do not really understand what I write and why I write it. Only later do I understand what it wants to tell me. I’m not trying to mystify it—in a practical way, I think it is only through writing that I allow myself to experience things I would not be courageous enough for in real life.”
Grossman has written a truly unforgettable book. It grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let me go. It haunted me at night and I dreamt of hiking and notebooks. It made me seek out a blank notebook and write down my thoughts. It moved me, but it didn’t make me cry. But it is a book that has stayed with me, and I’ve sat on this review for days and days now, and it’s about time I hit that “publish” button before I hesitate again, wondering if I am doing justice to this book.
So if you aren’t quite convinced by my words, perhaps Grossman’s words (and his translator’s) will help. There were so many passages in To the End of the Land that I copied, and this might just be one of my favourites. It involves food and made my mouth water when I read it, and again when I typed it out. And so I had to go pick up some tomatoes and cilantro and chickpeas to make my own version of a couscous salad. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
“As befitting the adversary she faces, she plunges into battle with her winning combination: Ariela’s Chinese chicken strips with vegetables, Ariela’s mother-in-law’s Persian rice with raisins and pine nuts, her own variation on her mother’s sweet eggplant with garlic and tomatoes, and mushroom and onion pies. If she only had a proper oven in this house she could make at least one more pie, but Ofer would be licking his fingers anyway. She moves between the oven and the stove top with unexpected gaiety, and for the first time since Ilan left, since they locked up their house in Ein Karem and dispersed to separate rental houses, she feels a sense of affection and belonging toward a kitchen, toward the whole idea of a kitchen, even this old-fashioned, grubby kitchen, which now approaches her tenatively and rubs up against her with its damp snouts of serving spoons and ladles. Piled on the table behind her are covered bowls of eggplant salad, cabbage salad, and a large, colourful chopped vegetable salad, into which she snuck slices of apple and mango, which Ofer may or may not notice, if he even gets to eat this meal. Another bowl contains her version of tabbouleh, which Ofer thinks is to die for – that is to say, which he really, really likes, she corrects herself quickly for the record.”
And then there is this one which just made so much sense to me, because I did feel that way.
“Deep in her heart she had hoped that when the baby was born she would immediately know everything she needed to know. That the baby would infuse her with a primal, natural and unimpeachable knowledge. Now she realised how much she had looked forward to that throughout the pregnancy, almost as much as to the baby itself – to the acuteness of knowing the right thing to do, which she had lost completely in recent years, since Avram’s tragedy.”
I have to thank the BBC World Book Club podcast (and in turn, Buried in Print whose link I first clicked to get to said book club – wee reader and I like to listen to it while having breakfast, ok maybe it’s just me who likes it) for making me borrow this book. To the End of the Land had been on my TBR list for a while but listening to David Grossman talk about his book, his writing, his life, on the podcast made me finally go pick it up and I am just so glad I did. Here’s to more from David Grossman, and the BBC World Book Club!
Title: To the End of the Land
Written by: David Grossman
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Originally published in 2008 (Published in English in 2010)
David Grossman’s Fiction in English
The Smile of the Lamb
See Under: Love
The Book of Intimate Grammar
The Zigzag Kid
Someone to Run With
To the End of the Land
Non-fiction in English
The Yellow Wind
Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel
Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years after Oslo
Lion’s honey : the myth of Samson