David Grossman is known not only as one of Israel's most acclaimed authors but also as a famously outspoken peace activist. That his most recent novel, To the End of the Land, pointedly critiques the violence of the Israel-Palestinian conflict should surprise no one. The book – which tells the story of an Israeli mother, Ora, who chooses to walk in the wilderness rather than wait at home to find out if her son will survive his military service – has been called "a mother's lament for life during a wartime that has no end in sight."
What was shocking, however, was the news that Grossman's own son, Uri, was killed in military action shortly before his father finished his novel. The book has gone on to garner praise and awards, hitting the news cycle in the US last month when Obama purchased it for a summer read. I recently had a chance to talk to Grossman about "To the End of the Land": a story of family, friendship, and love – and the way that violence distorts them all.
Q. You made headlines in America last month when President Obama picked up your book as one of his summer vacation reads. How did that make you feel? And what do you hope he will take away from your book?
A. Of course I was very happy to hear that. I think that through books, through literature, we can understand more about the reality that is described, a reality that maybe Obama only knows from the reports of his analysts or the TV news, which by definition is more immediate and more superficial. This is the nature of mass media. I hope that if he reads my book he will get to know better the complexity of this conflict, the intensity of it, the feel of it, the way it charges each and every individual who lives this reality, be it Israeli, Palestinian, or Palestinian Israeli.
Q. You chose a female protagonist for your novel – a soldier's mother – even though you are a soldier's father and it might have seemed more natural for you to write from a man's point of view. Why did you create Ora?
A. I intuitively chose a woman because I think the relations between a mother and a child are more primal. And I say this as a very “motherly” kind of father. I’ve been involved very much in the life of my children from the very beginning. From the moment our oldest son Jonathan was born I felt it was a privilege to touch life through him and through my parenthood, my fatherhood.
Nevertheless, I know myself that the compact between my wife and him is more primal.This book deals so much with the everyday act of creating a human being in this life, in this world. It felt more natural to me to tell the story from Ora’s point of view.
And another thing: I thought that the woman will be less collaborative with the big system of the government, the army, the war. These are systems that were created by men and they reward men more. Those systems in a way are more boys’ games. It’s more likely that a woman will escape. A woman will not feel obliged to honor this awful deal that we make with the system when we send our son to the army and then wait for them to tell us what happens to him. I just knew this is how it would be.
Q. One of the most poignant things about "To the End of the Land" is the way that you interweave lovely scenes of family life with terrible moments of conflict. It raises the question: Can normal family life continue in a country torn by this kind of struggle? Or perhaps a better question is, does normal family life really exist under such circumstances – or is it always in some way tainted by them?
A. Both questions are right. The answer to both is yes. There are family lives here in Israel. There are so many moments that are disarmed, disconnected from the big conflict. There are people here who try to live all their lives without really being in contact with the conflict. This can be done in a way – until suddenly the conflict hits you and pierces this bubble that you try to hide in. Because of the terrible violence there is such yearning to have normalcy, the have the tenderness of family life, but of course it is an illusion. You cannot live in this bubble. You cannot be immune from the radiation of the conflict, from the brutality of it.
I will give you another angle. There is a scene in the book where Ofer the son comes home for a vacation. He is coming back from three weeks of being “out there” on the ground [doing his military service] and he enters home and the look on his face – he almost cannot believe that such a reality exists as he comes back from the occupation, from terror, from the roadblocks, from the attacks of the Palestinians and the settlers alike. And suddenly he realizes that there is this reality at home. In a way he cannot make the connection between his exteriority and this interiority. In a way, it weakens him to be exposed to this. His parents, they do not want to imagine the reality he comes from.
Q. I'm going to guess that I'm like many of your readers when I say that one of my favorite characters in the book was Sami, the Israeli Palestinian taxi driver who is so close to Ora and her family – until their own personal conflict flares up. Was Sami based on someone you know?
A. Sami is a combination of different people I have known, which is almost always the way it happens in my books. I almost never write someone in my book the way that they are in real life. Instead I make a game out of creating crossbreeds – breeding together two different people that I know.
(Sometimes this gets people upset. They recognize themselves in my book and they also recognize the other person that I put them together with and sometime it’s a person that they cannot tolerate in real life. But then they read the book and sometimes they get the feeling that, “Ah, maybe that could have worked.”)
Sami is a combination of some people, most of them Israeli Palestinians that I have met that have to develop this very special ironic attitude to life as a way to survive a reality that is not very welcoming for them. And I try to show through him, through what happens in that taxi when he and Ora – and, for a short time, Ofer – are traveling.
In this little bubble of the taxi so much of the whole Israel-Palestinian conflict is condensed. You see how two people like Ora and Sami, who are really nice to each other and really like each other and even appreciate each other, how suddenly, when the conflict invades, how it changes them, how it distorts them, how suddenly them become representatives of their peoples.
And you know, when we are representatives, we over-advocate. We have a tendency to say things that we don’t really believe in, things that belong to the outer narrative, to the clichés that we hear on the radio and from our politicians and from people who do not really think of the situation. And suddenly it’s so humiliating, even for us when we hear ourselves saying these things. And yet we stick to them. Probably the earth is moving under our feet and we are lost so we stick to these clichés.
It happens to Ora and Sami and for a second they are like wolves against other. This is a very powerful example of what the conflict does to us.
Q. "To the End of the Land" has now been translated into 30 languages. What do you hear from your readers around the world?
A. The first reaction I get almost always is about Ora. I heard from women all over the world telling me, “Ora is me. You wrote my life.” This is really heartwarming because for me when I wrote this Ora was a very Israeli woman and very familiar to me.
I also felt that the reality of the book is so Israeli. It surprises me that readers all over the world are saying to me, “No, but we also share this experience of raising children and caring for them and not knowing what the future will bring them,” or people from all kinds of conflict zones or people who live any kind of intense life or tension and I think each one takes from the book what he wants: the family life or the love story between Ora and the two men or the political situation.
Even people who live in well-to-do places – in America or in France or in Denmark – I think, I hope, that this story of this family touches something deeper than its immediate circumstances. I think that anyone who is born to a family – and each of us was born to a kind of a family – and anyone who has a family, on a certain level they feel the wonder of the family, the anguish of the family, the suffocation of the family, the intensity of it and the role it plays when confronted by the background – the bigger reality, whatever it is.
I guess that this is the thing that people are attracted to in the book.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.