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Israel’s ‘Tolstoy’ Recalls Personal Calamity, National Disaster

David Grossman
David Grossman who wrote "To the End of the Land." Photographer: Kobi Kalmanovitz/Deborah Harris via Bloomberg

David Grossman spent years seeking the right characters and language for his new novel on the Mideast conflict. Then the conflict took his son’s life in circumstances that echo the book’s plot.

It’s a parallel Grossman prefers not to dwell on.

“I’d rather separate between my personal story and the story I’ve written,” he says during an interview in his agent’s home in Jerusalem. “You don’t have to go through such a personal catastrophe to understand what life is made of here.”

Staff Sergeant Uri Grossman, 20, was killed when an antitank missile hit his tank during the 2006 war in Lebanon. At the time, his father was almost finished writing “To the End of the Land,” the tale of an Israeli mother who expects the worst when her own son is sent to the front. It’s a novel of war, not peace, with a protagonist who has been likened to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

A fountain gurgles in the garden outside as the 56-year-old Israeli author talks in the living room of the old stone house. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and slacks. The wall behind him is lined with books.

The English-language edition of “To the End of the Land” was released this month as Israeli and Palestinian leaders began their first peace talks in 20 months. Grossman, an outspoken advocate of reaching a settlement, views this as a make-or-break moment.

“I’m afraid we won’t be given another chance,” he says. “If this conflict isn’t solved now, we might be doomed to experience another cycle of bloodshed, after which the two peoples will be no more clever or courageous.”

Paralyzed by Fear

Much hinges, he says, on the ability of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to move beyond their fears.

“They are so entrenched in their positions -- so terrified to give an inch -- that they have lost the flexibility needed to be creative,” he says.

The most contentious immediate obstacle in the talks is Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Abbas wants all building to stop; Netanyahu refuses to extend a limited 10-month freeze on construction.

Reaching a peace, even a fragile one, is essential to Israel’s well-being, he says: “Israel was meant to be the national home of the Jews, and until now it is not the home it was meant to be. It’s like living in a house where the walls are mobile all the time.”

Grossman and other Israeli authors who oppose the conflict routinely give speeches at rallies, sign petitions and write opinion columns. For many Israelis, they are secular spiritual leaders, though Grossman refuses to see himself as such.

“It is the role of the writer to keep an eye on the precision of the language, to call things by their name, to look at the text of the conflict from the eyes of our partner or our enemy,” he says.

Armor Without Knight

Israel, for all its military preparedness, is running the risk of losing that perspective, he says: “We were in danger of becoming a suit of armor without the knight inside it.”

Of his eight novels, the only other one to explore the Mideast conflict is “Smile of the Lamb,” published in 1983. Grossman has preferred to tackle the conflict in nonfiction, such as “Writing in the Dark” and “The Yellow Wind.”

“For some years, I felt I didn’t find the right language because everything sounded cliché,” he says. He eventually got around that by focusing on a single family.

“I wanted to document or capture the delicacy and tenderness of one family put against the background of the conflict with all its brutality and cruelty,” he says. “The nature of war is to make people faceless. It negates the right of the individual to be an individual.”

‘Not Trapped’

In “To the End of the Land,” an Israeli mother, Ora, is looking forward to celebrating her son’s release from military service when he’s ordered to return to the front for a major offensive. Convinced he will die in battle, she sets out for a hike in the Galilee for the duration of the conflict, traveling with a former lover, Avram, himself a veteran of the Yom Kippur War.

Reviews of the English edition have been positive, with American novelist Paul Auster going so far as to compare Ora to both Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary.

“The reaction to my book meant something,” Grossman says. “It showed Israelis that we are not trapped or frozen by the conflict.”

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, “To the End of the Land” is published by Knopf in the U.S. and by Cape in the U.K. (576 pages, $26.95, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Gwen Ackerman and Calev Ben-David write for Bloomberg

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