September 2010

Arts & Letters

The politics of prose

By Inga Clendinnen
David Grossman’s ‘To the End of the Land’

The Israeli novelist David Grossman leapt to international attention in the late ’80s with the release of his See Under: Love, translated into several European languages. Now comes To the End of the Land (Jonathan Cape, 592pp; $55.00). I used to think reviewing was a gentle art, but getting a grip on this huge, unruly novel has been a sumo-wrestle with a large, fast and unpredictable opponent, with me spending rather more time out of the ring than in it. See Under: Love was so capacious and so loosely structured that I could let some sections slide out of active memory and imagination with no sense of loss. That pick-and-choose strategy is not on offer with this one, which for all its sprawl and loops in time has only five significant characters, with one or more present on every one of its pages, and narrative sequences marked out by wars.

In outline: fellow students Ilan and Avram meet 16-year-old Ora in a hospital isolation ward (all three are suffering from infectious hepatitis) during the rumour-ridden chaos of the 1967 war. The hospital has effectively been abandoned; they are under the sole care of a silent Arab woman. Both boys fall in love with vivid, impulsive Ora; Ora falls in love with Ilan; in the hopeful exuberance of late adolescence they all forge a deep friendship. Three years later, with both men serving in the Israel Defense Forces in Sinai, Avram’s redoubt is overrun by Egyptian troops. After a surreal interlude in which Ilan listens to Avram’s increasingly desperate talk over a one-way radio, Avram is dragged from hiding; he is then savagely tortured over weeks (he is suspected of association with Military Intelligence). Returned, ruined in body and mind, to Israel, he is nursed back to physical health by Ilan and Ora, then withdraws into isolation. Ora, now married to Ilan, has borne him a son, Adam, and after a single sexual encounter with Avram, she bears him a son, Ofer, who is raised by Ilan and Ora as their own child and brother to Adam.

With the boys now grown and increasingly implicated in Israel’s military mystique, Ora feels herself increasingly isolated; she and Ilan separate, with Adam living with Ilan and Ofer with Ora. The family break-up is precipitated by an “incident”: in Hebron an old Arab man has been pushed into a meat locker by Israeli soldiers and “forgotten” for 48 hours; when released, he is raving. Ofer was among the men who locked him in. Ora, incredulous, inconsolable, is desperate to plumb the enormity of the act and to uncover responsibility; her menfolk, along with the Israeli army, want brisk investigation, then erasure.

This background narrative, each episode bearing its burden of disputed memory, is revealed through flashbacks and prolonged verbal riffs. The core story is simple. Ofer, having just ended his military service, has agreed to a week’s hiking in the Galilee with Ora, who is desperate for emotional reconciliation. Then the Second Lebanon War erupts. With the chance, at last, of serious combat (he has been mired in ‘civilian’ policing duties), Ofer volunteers to serve for a further 28 days. And Ora is distraught. If she waits dutifully at home, as the Israeli script requires, emissaries from the army will surely come, bringing news of Ofer’s death. She will not stay where she can be found. She flees to the Galilee, kidnapping an inert Avram along the way: she has persuaded herself that if she can talk about Ofer to his natural father – talk in sufficient detail and with sufficient feeling to make his unique, indispensable humanity real – Death might relent, and turn away.

So she talks. Ceaselessly. And I begin to be nervous. I am liking this less than I expected. Verbs begin to jar. Here is Ora trying to move a semi-drugged Avram out of his apartment and into a taxi: “‘Stop,’ she said now to the fallen heap of his flesh, ‘You have to come … Get up,’ she said. His temples started to pound. ‘Come on, let’s go,’ she squeaked. He snorted into her neck … ‘Don’t fall asleep,’ she croaked in a stifled voice. ‘Stay awake!’”; as they lurch down the stairs she proceeds to “emit” “long-forgotten things about him and herself and Ilan and told him a pulverised yet complete life story over sixty-four steps …”

I grant there’s some comic intention here, but there is serious intention, too, and surely all this croaking, snorting and emitting gets in the way? By the time Ora’s “fingers spread in a mute scream next to her ears” and “a forgotten pleasure gurgles into the corner of her eyes”, and Avram’s face “looks as if a firm hand were crushing it” and Ilan has all “corporeality stripped” from his, I am desperate to blame somebody: surely this is translator Jessica Cohen’s fault? Then I remember that The Yellow Wind, Grossman’s report on how Palestinians live in the occupied territories, and his collection of essays, Writing in the Dark (Bloomsbury, 144pp; $23.99), were also translated by Cohen, and in those I had heard a heroically lucid voice. See Under: Love had been translated by a different hand and mind, but again I had felt myself in contact with a mind I knew and trusted, now liberated by the fictional form into a new delicacy and daring. These clunking metaphors must be Grossman, choosing his words, making those words do what he wants them to do. My most serious problem was not with metaphors but with Ora. I didn’t like her. I didn’t like her coquettishness, her magical thinking; I didn’t like her big, unstoppable mouth. Ora violated most of the principles of my handcrafted gender politics. Yet for Grossman she seemed to be the principle of authentic emotion, and therefore of healing: the force that just might counter the moral corrosions of militarism. Somehow, I had to get back into the ring. So I reread this importunate novel over three days and nights, and again its energy and ambition held me to the end, and again my impatience with Ora endured. I therefore turned to the essays where Grossman explores, with astonishing frankness, why and how he writes.

Born in Israel in 1954, Grossman has lived through interesting times, but while he readily draws on past experience for his fictions (for example, nine-year-old Momik from See Under: Love refracts nine-year-old David’s tense fascination with a riddling adult world) he has conscientiously refrained from drawing on current political and personal events. Why? It was a matter of resistance: resistance to the mental and emotional coercions of the Israeli state’s purblind lurches from crisis to crisis. As reporter and activist he will write about current actualities but only in fresh-minted words, resisting the brutal simplifications of thought, emotion and language imposed by a concocted political ‘reality’. But for his art: “Over the last few years, out of a decision which is almost a protest, I have not written about these disaster zones in my literature” [the author’s italics], choosing instead to write about “other things … no less important, things for which it is hard to find the time, the emotion, and the total attention, while the near-eternal war thunders on outside.”

Then in May 2003, with his younger son about to follow his older brother into an armoured division of the Israel Defense Forces, Grossman found himself “overcome by an almost physical sense of urgency and alarm that gave me no rest”, and his resolution broke: “I then began to write a novel which deals directly with the difficult reality I live in, a novel that describes how the cruelty of the external situation invades the delicate, intimate fabric of one family, ultimately tearing it to shreds.”

So Grossman had willed my discomfort. I also learnt that this quiet, clear-thinking man, this practising humanist, nurtures a volcanic vision of personhood. At one’s core, he believes, is “a dark chasm, whence threatening desires and urges and foreignness and madness may erupt”, and this is true even of children, including our beloved own. Therefore those relentlessly visceral metaphors; therefore Ora’s uncontrollable eruptions. The superstitions that grip her (preparing, then throwing out, Ofer’s favourite meals; riding buses during a time of suicide bombings; her flight) point to the multiple injuries sustained by humans forced to live adjacent to the remorseless machinery of war. As for human intimacy: along with outflows of tenderness come anguish and violent fluctuations of feeling, along with the devastations wrought by unappeasable memory. Therefore the prose must be visceral: it must engulf, coerce, rend, if it is to open and heal old wounds and wrench open new possibilities.

I had to correct another error. For a time I had thought I was faced with an allegory in which Avram’s soul is healed in the course of his escape back to a kind of Eden, with Ora as restorative Eve. I also worried that Grossman, himself absorbed in demonstrations and daily political struggles with trusted Arab and Jewish comrades, might simply be underestimating the fast strong curve to the right in recent Israeli politics, as a new generation shaped by a blunt new politics pursues what it sees as its manifest interests. What use is Eve in such a reality?

I was underestimating him. For Grossman, fiction is a profoundly political act. And the most reliable because long-term antidote to the slow poison of the Arab–Israeli conflict, like the slow poison of the corrosive facts of the Holocaust, is the reparative project of literature, because only that project can make us value life and hope over grievance and injury. With Ora, Grossman burrows under the skin into the flesh and nerve-ends where memory is most alive, where there is no distinction between the personal and the political because one is the reflex of the other. We watch as the men in the novel thrust an unnatural boundary deep and deeper into what they choose to declare to be disputed territory; as events, interests and the masculinist seductions of militarism confine ‘the personal’ ever more narrowly. We watch Ora defy that aggression; we see her fail with the men of her family, but succeed with the wounded Avram. He will remember the son he has never seen, whether Ofer lives or dies, because he has been reawakened to tenderness, wholeness and trust.

At the close of the novel Ora stretches out on a rock ledge: “Beneath her body are the cool stone and the whole mountain, enormous and solid and infinite. She thinks: How thin is the crust of the earth.” Thin indeed, with only one man saved. Surely this is too small a victory, especially if it is won by flight from self-damaging humanity to undamaged ‘Nature’? But Grossman is committed to hope (what other choice is there?), and I now think this is an Antaeus moment. This Eve has lost her innocence. She has also lost her fear. She knows the Earth is fragile; that ‘the political’ is all around her. When she returns to her divided society she will find others, like Grossman, who think as she does.

To the End of the Land concludes with the son’s fate still in balance, but with Ora’s project achieved: “You’ll remember Ofer, his life, his whole life, right?” And Avram will remember. Grossman’s fate was different. In 2006 his son Uri was killed, along with every one of his crew, when his tank was blown up in southern Lebanon just before that war’s end. Grossman declined the usual interviews on the novel’s publication, instead circulating the following email:

I started writing this book in May 2003, six months before the end of my oldest son Yonatan’s military service and six months before his younger brother, Uri, was drafted. Both of them served in the Armoured Corps. Uri was very familiar with the plot of the book and the characters. Every time we spoke on the phone and especially when he was on leave, he would ask what was new with the story and in the lives of its heroes (“What did you do to them this week?” was his usual question) … I had a feeling, or more accurately, a wish that the book I was writing would protect him. On August 12, 2006, during the last hours of the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed in south Lebanon … After the end of the shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, more than anything else, was the resonance of the reality in which the final version was written.

A similar note appears at the end of the English translation.

Adorno’s grim ruling, “No poetry after Auschwitz”, means “no more wilfully aesthetic manipulation of language, no revelling in its revelatory power”. What else can be done when “the problem of evil” is not an abstraction but actualised in a thousand images burned into flesh and memory; when a man’s mind and body is etched with the eyes, voices and hands of his torturers? If the possibility of trust has been destroyed, how can the dream of subtle, exhilarating, transformative communication with an invisible stranger even be thought of ? Because that, surely, is what our surging response to words artfully arranged feels like: a mutual illumination of souls. To the End of the Land is remorseless in intention and execution: a memory-museum full of twisting corridors, obscure landings, staircases going nowhere. We explore, doubtfully; we double back; we begin to look for exits. But there are no exits. For Grossman ‘fiction’ is no escape, but the engine for the most profound and intense communication of authentic emotion. That is its purifying, elevating function, its restorative, liberating power. From Writing in the Dark:

The consciousness of the disaster that befell me upon the death of my son … now permeates every minute of my life. The power of memory is indeed great and heavy, and at times has a paralysing effect. Nevertheless, the act of writing creates for me a ‘space’ of sorts, an emotional expanse that I have never known before, where death is more than the absolute, unambiguous opposite of life … I write, and the world does not close in on me. It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible.

Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen is an academic, historian and writer. Her book Reading the Holocaust was judged Best Book of the Year by the New York Times in 1999.

From the front page

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

In This Issue

Barnsey’s blues

Jimmy Barnes’s ‘Rage and Ruin’

The diary of a maestro

Meeting Neil Armfield
Kylie Minogue performs at the Fox Theatre, Oakland, California, on her first North American tour, September 2009. © AP Photo/Tony Avelar

Sister act

The Minogue sisters

Film still from Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. © Photos 12/Alamy

The blast zone

Online exclusives

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative