To The End of The Land by David Grossman, Israel’s finest contemporary writer instills a new literary life into Israel’s anguished soul, the book piercingly scrutinizes the ubiquity of death in the lives of Israelis in this age of intifadas, the existential anxiety that it spawns, and the horrendous price that Israeli macho military ideology extracts.
At the heart of the book is a mother’s anxiety about her son in the Army – a feeling with which most Israelis identify as there is compulsory military service of three years in Israel. In an interview David Grossman remarked that in Israel most families plan for three children so that even if one is killed in the Army, they have another two.
Ora is a 49-year old mother and her younger son Ofer has just finished his compulsory military service. Adam, her elder son, has already completed his Army tenure and is currently in Bolivia with his father Ilan, Ora’s estranged husband. Ora is well aware from her experience with Adam that it is not the same person who returns from the Army. She knows “…they don’t really come back. Not like they were before. And that the boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized- lost to himself, too.”
Her motherhood wants to reclaim this boy to herself after his return from the Army. Towards that end, she has planned a hike in Galilee with him, all alone, so that the mother and son can be together and re-discover each other. However, unbeknownst to her, Ofer decides to volunteer for a new military campaign that leaves Ora utterly devastated. She is ravaged by the thought of his death and in one inspired moment of magical thinking comes to the conclusion that she can protect him from possible death by fleeing from the notifiers who the Army traditionally sends to the families who have suffered bereavement. She argues with herself that “…notification will never be given, because notification always takes two, Ora thinks – one to give and the one to receive - and there will be no one to receive this notification so it will not be delivered...”
Ora escapes to Galilee without informing anyone, leaving no forwarding address, and abandoning her phone so that nobody can reach her. She takes Aviram with her who is her childhood friend, past lover, and Ofer’s biological father. Ora, Ilan, and Aviram had first met during 1967 war when they were teenagers. While Ilan is handsome, self-assured, and witty, Aviram is short-statured, inventive, and hugely imaginative. She loves them both, but ends up marrying Ilan. Both of them also served in the Army. But, Aviram returns from the Army a broken man - damaged in body and spirit because of the treatment that he received as a POW. Ora and Ilan help to rehabilitate him but Aviram has lost the spark that used to keep him going. Ora sleeps with him in order to revive his will to live, and Ofer is conceived. So close are these friends that Ilan knows about Ofer but still adopts and raises him as his own son along with their first born Adam. Aviram withdraws from the world, cuts himself off from everyone, and refuses to talk to Ora about their son Ofer. He is living in the squalid margins of the society when Ora whisks him away to Galilee.
During this 500 kilometer walk, Ora tells Ofer’s story to Aviram recalling every moment of his life – from the moment he was born to the first step that he took, from his feeding habits as an infant to his sweaty body odor after sports, and from his childhood dread of Arabs to his current girlfriend who has broken up with him. She believes that talking constantly about Ofer, and keeping him alive in the conversation, will protect her son from the death she is imagining.
This walk, then, becomes the central pillar around which David Grossman creates the narrative structure of a mother’s personal anguish and a nation’s tragedy. Slowly, flitting backward and forward in time, a pace that he controls brilliantly, a rich portrait emerges of not only a happy family but also of three men in Ora’s life who bond in their masculinity, witticism, and a world view that is increasingly divergent from Ora’s, especially concerning that nebulous Israeli situation made up of roadblocks, ambushes, suicide bombers, and violent deaths. She wonders whether she has actually been able to protect her son despite all her teachings to be good because in the fog of the situation that they are in; there is a dichotomy between being good and being alive.
Ora’s character is really majestic. Although her “flight from bad tidings” may appear to be a sign of an anxious, neurotic mother, the Ora that actually emerges is a nurturer who revives, shelters, and comforts as much the failed conscience of her son as that of a people uncomfortable with the destiny that they have inherited.
David Grossman has used this literary technique brilliantly wherein he lets the story drip drop by drop through exquisite flash backs that meander through multiple timelines. After building a particular story strand to a crescendo, he takes the reader on a different track with a deft feint and then gently weaves in the original strand to gently complete the mosaic. The story often reads like a thriller.