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Miracle Realist


November 15, 2011

In a candid interview, the Israeli author on Netanyahu’s impotence, how his son’s death affected his latest novel, and Israel’s need to embrace Palestinians with humanity.

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Photograph by Peter-Andreas Hassiepen

On the announcement that Israeli Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit—captured in June 2006 at the age of nineteen by Hamas militants during a border crossing raid—would be released in return for over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in a piece titled “Everyone’s Son” that despite the anxieties caused by the deal, he felt “relief that I no longer have to choose between the well-being of my country and the well-being of my son.” Halevi, a contributing editor at The New Republic, admits that this relief comes in part from the ineluctable guilt he felt for “doing nothing to help the campaign to free him,” even opposing proposed swap deals that would put him back in his parent’s arms. At this moment, Halevi’s outlook seemed to diametrically oppose his paternal instincts.

The conflicts raised by Halevi resonate with those of a man whose own personal tragedy became a public spectacle. David Grossman—the Israeli-born author of See Under: Love: A Novel, The Yellow Wind, and The Book of Intimate Grammar—lost his twenty-year-old son Uri, a Staff Sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces, in August 2006 (two months after Galid’s capture) during the waning hours of the Second Lebanon War. The mounting tension Grossman felt between the country of his birth and his own family, between the safety of his fellow Israeli citizens and that of his children, reached a horrific tipping point. In the eulogy he delivered at Uri’s funeral, Grossman compared the way Uri “was the essence of Israeli-ness” to the need for Israelis to defend themselves from the cynicism and corruption that pervade their politics and society. If the Israeli community is one with permeable boundaries between the personal and the national, it exacts a heavy and unfortunate cost.

It would make sense, then, that Grossman’s novel following Uri’s death was To the End of the Land, released in paperback from Vintage Books in August. It follows Ora, an Israeli woman who abandons her life in Jerusalem and embarks on a trek through the Galilee in order to escape the possibility that her son, Ofer, will be killed during his military service at the outbreak of the Second Intifada. On her trip, Ora travels with Avram, a tormented friend from her teenage years who became a POW during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and with whom Ora seeks to rekindle an old, if turbulent, relationship. Grossman began writing To the End of the Land in May of 2003, over three years before his son’s untimely death. In fact, Grossman writes in a note at the end, “I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.”

This bit of magical thinking manifests itself in Ora’s flight, and perhaps the Israeli spirit as a whole. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” Grossman has repeatedly condemned the Israeli government’s entropic behavior in the face of myriad obstacles, including the capture of Gilad Shalit. In July 2010, Grossman wrote in Haaretz that Israel has not been sufficiently daring in its dealings with Hamas, particularly on the issue of prisoner exchanges. Even if the Hamas regime doesn’t respond, Grossman believes this doesn’t necessarily preclude the government from taking chances. He beseeches the government to outshake its dogged “paralysis” and “lift the siege that we have been imposing on ourselves for so many years.”

I spoke with Grossman several weeks before news of the Shalit deal broke publicly. Throughout our conversation—in which we discussed his novel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent protests, and the Israeli government, among other things—I was taken aback by the contrast between Grossman’s voice and his words. His firm, often acerbic rhetoric—as evinced in his discussion of Netanyahu and Israeli politics—belie the sweetness of his calm, thoughtful voice. He speaks with conviction but makes no attempt at hiding his thought process, which one can see unfold in real time. Perhaps this is a symptom of speaking in a non-native tongue, but it also reflects how little he takes lightly. He does not hide his dismay with Israel and its leaders, but he deeply believes in the possibility of a bright future for his home state. For all that he’s endured, Grossman has never ceased to invoke the power of hope.

—Sam Kerbel for Guernica

Guernica You began writing To the End of the Land six months before your son Uri joined the Israeli army. In the afterward, you mention that you started this book as a way to protect him, just as Ora’s expedition through the Galilee was meant to keep her son, Ofer, alive. Is Ora a doppelgänger?

David Grossman: I think all characters are in my books. Even if I didn’t know it in the beginning, they become [doppelgängers]—not only from the point of view of what happened later in my life, but usually when I write about the character in the beginning I do not really understand what the connection is between me and this character, and why I am so driven to write her or him. Gradually, I find out that this character is really relevant for me and meaningful for me. Ora is not myself; we are very different from each other. But after having written her, I think I became her.

Guernica: In the note at the end you say that the book was largely completed before your son Uri’s death. Can you take me back to the day when you picked up work on the novel again after this tragedy? Can you explain the thoughts you had at the time and whether the tone or resolution of the novel changed, if at all?

David Grossman: The story line did not change. I thought that I should remain loyal to the story, that the story is not about the death of a son but rather about the anxiety from death. The book is not about death at all—it’s about life, and fear of death, which is a very typical combination for every Israeli family and for Israel as an idea, as a state.

About my return to writing, well I prefer not to go there in detail, but I just know that it was very hard to go back in the beginning. Then gradually, I realized it was the only way for me to find a place again in this world because the feeling of being totally exiled from everything that was before [made me realize] nothing can be taken for granted any more. Then I realized the story was still solid, it was a place I understood. The thirst for creating started to come again, the need to insist on accuracy of words in a world that seemed to have no accuracies and was all vague and numb, insisting on a feeling of doing something right in a world that was so wrong. Infusing love, passion, and life into the characters, infusing anecdotes and a sense of humor—all of this was for me a way of choosing life again.

Guernica: How are you different from Ora, as you mention above?

David Grossman: Ora is actually not an artist. Avram is an artist, for example, in all his mind and being, and I can identify very much in this sense. She is not an artist; she feels things usually as they are, not to mention the fact that she is very rooted: her two feet are on the ground. A reader from Brazil wrote me a nice letter. She said, “Ora is not a muse of the arts. But she is definitely a muse of life.” And I think she was right. Of all the characters in the book, I feel [Ora] was touched by life and vitality, and all the men around her take from her and absorb from her and are feeding on her. She is a kind of sexual pillar in the family. Even when she seems to be totally helpless, even when things happen to her, she does not generate them usually, except for this running away from home. She has this power of regenerating the reality and people around her.

Guernica: Readers and critics alike have praised Ora’s character at length, and rightly so. But To the End of the Land has the feel of an epic in large part because all of the characters are so vividly described and multi-dimensional. Could you speak a little more about where Avram emerged from?

David Grossman: I must say that for me there were always two main characters in this book, not only Ora. Avram is the creator, the artist, the most tormented, more so than characters I was writing in other novels—the outcast, not understood by others, who dares to [bear] the responsibility of uniqueness, of being different. He enjoys being different but at the same time he’s desperate: he wants to be accepted by others. He’s a very strong and a very weak person at the same time—not weak, but very fragile, the one who always finds solace in his imagination. Ora has no real imagination; she doesn’t believe in the imaginary, only maybe in her wishful thinking and magical thoughts when the journey begins. She’s a very down-to-earth person. Avram is always floating—at least before he fell captive. Maybe Ora [assumes] his artistic qualities by re-creating him, by bringing him back to life. In the beginning, she tells him the story about Ofer, and he won’t listen. He doesn’t want any contact with life. He says that his software is overloaded, and there is no room for any other person to enter his life. She insists on telling him the story of Ofer’s life because maybe Avram will not be attracted to Ofer, but he’ll be attracted to the story of Ofer. Avram is such a person, I guess, that he is more attracted to stories than to people. What Ora does in this journey is to allow Avram—maybe for the first time in his life—to cross over from the dimension of story to the dimension of real human beings, to really touch reality in a primal way, in a way that he was not able to following his captivity.

Infusing love, passion, and life into the characters, infusing anecdotes and a sense of humor—all of this was for me a way of choosing life again.

Guernica: What about Ilan, Ora’s estranged husband? Together with Ora and Avram they form a kind of trio.

David Grossman: Ilan is important, but I needed him in the background. In earlier versions of the book he had more of a presence. But then I started to feel that the heart of the drama was between Ora and Avram. As he was in the isolation department in the hospital in the first part of the book, [Ilan] was always asleep. In a way, Ilan is a person who remains asleep in his life. He does not emerge from himself; he has not changed very much. Ora loves him and chooses him, and yet she knows all the time that even though they had a child together, she is kept for Avram. Of course, with this triangle you can also say there was something erotic between Avram and Ilan. But I do not think erotic sexually, rather erotic in the sense of finding someone who can be like you. When Avram and Ilan were youngsters, they felt the deepest of the most daring self that Ilan allowed himself to explore. They recognized each other like two spies recognize each other in a foreign country. But in the Yom Kippur War, after he heard Avram broadcasting from the bunker when the Egyptian army was flooding all around him, Ilan insisted on transmitting his story, and then suddenly Ilan realized he is not a real artist like Avram is.

Guernica: Let’s open up this idea a little, that writing is a means of understanding. Many of your novels have very strong autobiographical undercurrents. See Under: Love, for example, deals in part with the son of Holocaust survivors, and you have a relative who was in Auschwitz. Do these personal elements appear on purpose or do they inadvertently find their way into your writing?

David Grossman: I find that sometimes they flow in easily, and other times I need them because they allow me to understand things in my life that I do not understand unless I write them in the form of story. That means that I give my characters other points of view, other formulations—not only mine but others’.

Guernica: There are many sensitive topics discussed in To the End of the Land, one of which is the Israeli’s army’s treatment of prisoners. Ofer becomes embroiled in one such incident, and Ora has a difficult time understanding how her son could have been involved. Her husband, Ilan, defends Ofer, but Ora has a hard time grasping what may have transpired. What inspired this incident in the novel?

David Grossman: We live in a very violent region, which makes people react sometimes in a terrible way. There is the part [of the novel] about Ofer and the Palestinian in Hebron. But there is also the part of Avram in Egyptian captivity, where he is treated terribly. We are all prisoners and imprisoned. The difficulty of being a human being, being a mentsch even, in such an inhumane and anti-mentsch reality, it’s an environment that is so poisoned with hatred and fears and prejudices and racism that one fights hard in order not to surrender to [these poisons]. It is so tempting to surrender to this way of thinking: demonizing the other, idealizing ourselves, believing the other understands only the language of power and therefore we have to, against our will of course, treat them only with vigor—all of these unbearable ways of seeing reality, which in a way are realizing themselves, it’s a kind of self-fulfilling way of looking at the world. As parents, one of the major challenges here is how to raise our children to be human beings, tender and exposed and sensitive to the other, to any other, to every human being, and respectful toward every human being—and the fear that maybe in so doing we do not prepare them for life here, life that is so contrary to [being human]. Even Ora, when she criticizes Ofer for what he did in Hebron—when she wants to warn him to treat the Palestinians in a humane way—she is also afraid that sometime there will be a second when his attention will be distracted or delayed, his reaction will be delayed because of what she has implanted in him, and this hesitation might bring about his death. It’s not only an abstract thought here; it’s very practical. People are challenged to make sharp, immediate decisions in order to stay alive, especially when they serve in the army. All these extreme dilemmas, which are really dilemmas for Greek tragedies, they are our daily bread, ours and the Palestinians. It is so hard to mitigate all these contrary urges and pressures and yearnings to remain human. Sometimes I compare it to walking in the middle of a huge storm with only one candle in your hand. How do you keep it lit? How do you protect it?

Guernica: Besides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’ve written and spoken about many other topical issues of late, including the protests that erupted this past summer in Israel. I’ve spoken with several Israelis, all of whom have said they were reassured by the way in which the protests reminded them of Israel’s power of unity. Do you feel the same way about them? Are they a positive sign for Israel’s future as a political state?

David Grossman: Yes, I think they’ve helped us to explore again something we were deprived of since the war of ’67 that split the people of Israel into so many hostile fragments. Suddenly, due to social protests, we were able to explore unity and solidarity. Really, we inhaled solidarity, the sense that it was a mineral that our society has lost and desperately needed. I think it shows the maturity of this society, something positive regarding our future, even though the protests and the leaders of the protests were careful not to mention at all the connection between our economic situation and the settlements, for example, where most of the money goes to—the settlements and the army who protects the settlements. But maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to avoid mentioning the problem of the occupation for some weeks, because somehow I believed that the more social agenda in the next election and the current situation, and ideas of equality and respect to every human being whoever he or she is, and responsibility for what we are doing and an understanding for where this social policy has led us to—maybe, hopefully, they would be translated also to political action regarding the Palestinians.

War is all about effacing the other and self-effacement; it’s all about generalizations and sweeping definitions and demonizations.

Guernica: What is the role of the Israeli government in all of this? You said in an interview about a year ago that the prime minister “is the only person who can change our destiny for the better.” Do you think this is still true?

David Grossman: I still think so. It’s not that I’m hopeful, and I wasn’t even then, regarding Mr. Netanyahu, who more and more seems totally paralyzed in front of these new challenges. He is so trapped within his paranoid way of seeing reality. Don’t get me wrong: there are dangers to Israel. We are surrounded by countries who are hostile to us, and until today most countries—not most, all Arab countries I can say—have not accepted our right to be here and they absolutely do not understand the deep affinity and belonging that we feel toward this country. So some of our fears are true and concrete. But Netanyahu is unable to distinguish between the real dangers and the echoes of his fears and the echoes of past traumas. This is not a leader who can change reality, who can generate a new reality. If he continues to act like this and to think like this, he can only doom us to repeat our tragedies and bring to life our worst fears. Having said all that, because of the situation now in Israel, because Netanyahu is such a genius at inflaming the fears of people and bringing them together in a sense of unity—a unity created by anxiety—he is the strongest Prime minister here for quite awhile (Ariel Sharon was very strong as well). If he dares, maybe under outside pressure, to act differently and to approach the Palestinians in a different way than what we saw in the United Nations some days ago, then there might be a chance for another reality. I must add that the performance of Mahmoud Abbas was not inspiring, to say the least. You saw here two leaders who really advocate anxieties and hostilities. Neither has the vision that would allow their people to transcend to a new way, to a new future.

Guernica: Given all this, what role does fiction, and art more generally, play here? Your writing, and the writing of so many other Israeli authors, is so introspective and delves so deeply into the inner lives of its characters that it seems fiction would play a particularly critical role at a time when so many events—the protests, the bid for Palestinian statehood, the Arab Spring—seem perched at a tipping point.

David Grossman: I think that art flourishes in Israel. From cinema, to theater, to music, to literature, it’s amazing. Sometimes I think, as a disabled person would develop another sense, as a blind person would improve his hearing in order to have more contact with reality, so is Israel—paralyzed for some years now and really narrowed down in so many dimensions of its existence—compensating itself by developing the sense of the arts, to touch reality more, to be more in reality. Stories today cannot change reality; they unfortunately cannot change the world. Literature doesn’t have representatives in power centers, or financial markets, or parliament, or army headquarters. But maybe it can help us so that this world cannot change us. There is something in literature so contrary to the general dimension of war. War is all about effacing the other and self-effacement; it’s all about generalizations and sweeping definitions and demonizations. Writing is about specifying individuals, being very attentive to them and caring for them. It insists on nuances. When people read books, not only in Israel or Palestine but everywhere in our industrial society—big conglomerates, big metropolises—writing has a unique power to give us back our faith, our human faith. And this is not a small thing.

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