Journey to the Son
Begley, Adam, Moment
To the End of the Land
By David Grossman Alfred A. Knopf 2010, $27.95, pp. 592
Fiction and fact collide head-on in David Grossman's To the End of the Land. Impact occurs immediately after the last page of the novel, in a brief, untitled note: The author steps forward, strips off the armor of make-believe and informs us that his younger son, Uri, serving in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed on August 12, 2006, "in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War." The news would be tragic under any circumstances; as a coda to a 600-page novel about a woman who's convinced that her younger son, also serving in the IDF, is about to be killed in action, it's devastating.
How much of the emotional force of the fiction is owed to fact? Impossible to say. Many people will begin the book, as I did, already knowing about the death of the author's son. That Grossman succeeds in loosening the grip of that terrible knowledge (I didn't forget it, exactly, but I was able to put it out of my mind) is a testament to his seductive storytelling. He made me believe in an invented world where other outcomes were still conceivable. (In an earlier novel, See Under; Love, Grossman pulled off the remarkable trick of convincing me that instead of being slaughtered in the Drohobych ghetto, Bruno Schulz, the great Polish Jewish writer, jumped into the Baltic Sea and became a salmon.)
Grossman's new novel is dominated by its volatile heroine, Ora, the woman who's certain that her son will soon be dead. A magnificent creation, radiantly alive and dangerously changeable, Ora steals the show. Like most people, she indulges in magical thinking; unlike most people, she allows magical thinking to determine her actions, even to shape her existence. When her son Ofer volunteers for an unspecified military campaign (the present tense of the novel is the spring of 2000 in the midst of the second intifada--after Israel's mid-1990s plague of suicide bombings, but before 9/11 turned terrorism into a global preoccupation), she decides that by avoiding notification of his death, she can keep him alive. It's an absurd idea (especially since Ofer isn't dead)--and yet, to live in Ora's world, to be immersed in the complexities of her personal history and the complementary complexities of daily life in divided, embattled Israel, is to begin to dare to hope that her impossible strategy ("She will be the first notification-refusenik") might possibly succeed: If she isn't home to hear the bad news, whatever it is won't happen.
She flees Jerusalem, leaving behind her cell phone, and sets off on a hike in the Galilee, vowing to stay away until Ofer is safely home. Accompanying her, more or less against his will, is Avram, whom she's known and loved and been loved by for more than 30 years. As they walk through the spring landscape, we learn all about Ora and her tattered family life, about Ofer and his older brother, about her estranged husband, Ilan. We also learn about Avram: He and Ilan and Ora are three sides of a romantic triangle, a messy, unresolved affair that began when they all met as teenagers in a hospital isolation ward during the 1967 Six-Day War. Eventually we learn that Avram is Ofer's biological father, though they've never laid eyes on each other. As Ora puts it, "We're really a complicated case."
As a young man, Avram was talented and effusive, full of fierce artistic ambition. Then he was captured by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War and tortured, cruelly and repeatedly. …