I don’t know why I chose to start with David Grossman’s epic – 600 page – To the End of the Land, perhaps I was persuaded by repeated appearance on top lists of 2010s or perhaps I wanted to tackle (and defeat) one of the longest books on the list early on, but I chose it and I’m glad I did.
The book follows Ora and Avram as they walk across Israel. Ora tells Avram the stories of her children and her life in an effort to fulfill the bargain she demands of fate: by telling the stories of her son, Ofer, she can protect him while he serves in the IDF. At first I found the meandering of both the characters and the stories of Ora and Ofer’s life to be tedious, but as I came to know their family and their histories I wanted to hear the stories, to fill out a little more of the portrait. That said, the novel could use a good edit. Early sections detailing Ora’s relationship with her cab driver and later scenes describing obstacles – both real and metaphoric – on their journey are too detailed, too frequent, too heavy to add anything to the narrative, rather they distracted this reader from the truly compelling story of how Ofer came to be born, how Avram came to be tortured, and what, if any, future the characters have with one another.
I had difficulty with the politics of the novel, too. Ora at once commands her son to never hurt anyone intentionally, fearing that if he takes a life he will irrecoverably change. Yet the novel takes as its basic premise the need for the IDF to exercise extreme force to prevent “terrorist” attacks. While both sons serve in the IDF, the novel takes for granted a reader who will implicitly sympathize with the soldiers. I have little complaint with the backdrop of the wars and the scant attention to historical details – this is not historical fiction in that it the narrative shows little interest in describing the military conflict and in fact assumes a surprising level of existing knowledge on middle eastern politics and history from the reader – this is a book about a family and the loyalties and sacrifices possible from and for family members. I do appreciate the climactic consideration of the schism between “soldier” and “man,” or between what constitutes civility and barbarism, however, I still wish this theme had received fuller scope in the novel, an explicit address of questions of inherent or cultivated or enforced violence beyond a single character to include the whole of the conflict.
In writing this minor critique of what I feel to be an otherwise powerful novel, I realize that perhaps my concern that the novel misses, or slights, these questions is misplaced. The narrative does wonder whether single events, single decisions, single omissions, can permanently change an individual, can kill whatever humanity exists within them. But somehow these questions seem to be evacuated of historical or political presentness. As if these are great philosophical questions that could be asked at any point in history, and that the war described is merely a convenient or expedient backdrop against which to ask and answer. Which seems like an impossible critique given that the fundamental motivation for Ora’s narrative — her son serving for a month in the second intifada — should guarantee the presence of historical context… and yet the narrative does seem drained of specific time or place, an eternal, an inevitable journey through a universal landscape.
In any case, whether I’ve ended up with a minor complaint or unexpected praise, the novel provides much to think about. Here’s hoping the next 99 continue to provide such rich (or, with my apologies, contradictory) responses from this reader.