Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Activist Novelist

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Activist Novelist

Article excerpt

The Activist Novelist To the End of the Land, by David Grossman. Knopf, $26.95

In thirteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the groundbreaking The Yellow Wind, an investigation into Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories that arguably predicted the First Intifada, the celebrated Israeli writer David Grossman has employed his emotional intelligence and formidable imagination to reach out to the Other, those marginalized by society - whether it's Holocaust survivors, street children, illegal Palestinian laborers, or the victims and perpetrators of the occupation. Pursuit of such lines of inquiry in a deeply fractious political environment, particularly with Grossman's characteristic candor and empathy, practically begs for controversy and censure; Grossman has endured his share; yet, his books are also frequent bestsellers in Israel and Europe, transcending political divides. A man of the left who has refused to officially join Peace Now, the land-forpeace organization co-founded by writer Amos Oz, Grossman remains an independent thinker: he is interested in neither equivocation nor idealization - two common features of the political activist - but rather a bald look at reality. In the essay "The Desire to Be Gisella," collected in his 2008 book of nonfiction, Writing in the Dark, he states, "when we write about the Other, about any Other, we aspire to reach the knowledge that encompasses the unloved parts in him as well, the parts that deter and threaten."

To open oneself to the Other requires selfquestioning, bravely sublimating one's own fears to a sense of curiosity, removing "layers of cataract from the soul" in order to escape a "fatalistic, defeatist frame of mind" in which every outcome is predetermined, every enemy catalogued, every act of violence guaranteed to beget a brutal response. For Grossman, the stakes could not be higher. As he told the Guardian, he writes to "reclaim things that have been confiscated [including] the right to be a human being in a situation that tries to obliterate my human qualities."

Given such earnest outpourings, one might not be surprised to hear that Grossman's writing, at its best, often features soaring expressions of emotion; yet, the risk of such a style is sententiousness and melodrama. Avoiding these pitfalls requires care, but Grossman usually succeeds, aided by an ability to immerse his readers in vividly drawn worlds and a sensitive handling of his subjects. He is also unafraid of experimentation - his masterpiece, See Under: Love, which explores the legacy of the Holocaust and the reticence of many Israelis to discuss it in the state's early years, as well as the tragic life of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, tells part of its phantasmagoric story in the form of encyclopedia entries. (For its fearless criticism and authoritative reporting, The Yellow Wind also deserves the masterpiece laurel, though of the nonfictional kind. Reading it today, one realizes, dispiritingly, how little has changed, and how precise and incisive are Grossman's perceptions.)

In a place where political allegiances are patent and ossified, where militarist thinking is ascendant, Grossman's work rebels against the status quo. Undaunted, he argues that empathy and imagination - to imagine what peace would look like, how it could repair Israel's fissured society, and to see who the Other truly is behind the euphemistic news reports and alarmist military briefings - have a place in political and literary dialogue. With his latest novel, To the End of the Land, Grossman casts his iconoclastic gaze at people like himself, educated, liberal, middleclass, secular Israelis, and asks how "the situation" has changed them, if they've been made strangers to one another. In essence, he is asking whether he and his peers have been made into some kind of Other, a perversion of their youthful expectations, and what the costs of such a transformation might be.

The novel's protagonist is Ora, a woman of about fifty, living in Israel in the year 2000, whose son Ofer, after having been released from his compulsory military service, has reenlisted in order to participate in an unspecified operation in the occupied West Bank. …

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