Monica Carter's Reviews > To the End of the Land

To the End of the Land by David Grossman
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Mar 14, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: btba
Read in March, 2011

They sit quietly, digesting. Ora hugs her knees, rationalizing that she isn't all that accessible and permeable even to herself anymore, and that even she herself doesn't go near that place inside of her. It must be that she's growing old, she decides--for some time now she's had a strange eagerness to pronounce her aging, impatient for the relief that comes with a declaration of total bankruptcy. That's how it goes. You say goodbye to yourself even before other people start to, softening the blow of what will inevitably come.

Israeli writer David Grossman's To the End of the Land is a tortuous and conflicted epic about the cost of war--how it commands the attention of not just the soldiers but of those left behind, seemingly waiting for death to enter their lives in a way they hadn't expected. This novel is centered around Ora, an Israeli mother of two sons, Adam and Ofer, ages twenty-four and twenty-one respectively. She has drifted from her son Adam and is separated from her husband, Ilan, who are now both on a trip together in South America. Adam has finished her military service but her youngest son, Ofer, has voluntarily signed up for another mission on the eve of her and Ofer's plans to go on a camping trip. Ora is devastated by this and overwhelmed with the possibility of his death. Ora decides to walk 'to the end of the land', to the Galilee, in hopes of avoiding any bad news of ever reaching her.

Accompanying her on this trip is Avram, a friend since she was fifteen years old and her first boyfriend...and the father of Ofer. The prologue, set in 1967, lays down the foundation for the love triangle between Ilan, Avram and Ora which plays out on several levels throughout the novel. All three met while they were hospitalized with illnesses while they were teens and become so embroiled in each others lives is difficult to imagine one functioning without the other. Ilan is handsome, detached and emotionally deprived while Avram is jovial, artistic and impassioned. Both are in love with Ora. Ora can't choose between the two and while both are away at military service, they alternated weekends with Ora.

Then, tragedy strikes Avram when he is held as a POW in Egypt. He returns battered and mutilated, void of personality and emotion. Ilan feels responsible; Ora feels guilty. Ilan and Ora have coupled while Avram is away and have a son. But Ilan is threatened by the idea of family and flees his home life. After Avram is recuperated, he tells Ora that he can't perform sexually. She knows how intimate their physical bond was and seduces him. Ofer is the son of that union. By the time he is born, Ilan and Ora have reunited and Avram, who knows he is dead inside, wants them to take care of Ofer. He never wants to see or meet Ofer. Avram falls out of their lives except for infrequent communications with Ora where the discuss, very minimally, what is going on in Ofer's life. When Ofer is released from military duty, Avram calls Ora to make sure that he was released. When she confirms that she tells him that he signed up for another duty immediately. Avram is drug-addled, slipping away, and Ora knows this. She goes over to his apartment and hijacks him for this trip.

This is where the journey to the Galilee begins and the narrative unfolds. Walking the land, sporting the two backpacks that Ofer and Ora had packed for their trip, Avram and Ora try to reconnect to who they once were, as individuals and as a couple. Gradually, Avram shakes off his pharmaceutical stupor and Ora becomes less desperate and they settle into the ebb and flow of revealing their lives to each other. Ora frantically Ofer's life onto Avram and Avram's initial resistance fades and he begins to ask questions about Ofer as opposed to silently tolerating her stories.

The narrative is complex, sprawling, and as varied as the land they traverse. The inexplicable destruction of war, the absoluteness of its actions, the devastation it creates pulses through Ora and her stories, her maternal anxiety and fear. The brutal moment when the reader learns of Avram's torture is enough to make you close the book and mourn the evil that lurks in human mind. The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is set-up well in the beginning of the novel by the relationship between Sami, an Arabic-israeli taxi driver, and Ora. They manage to maintain a friendship by disparaging both sides as part of their banter and nobody is left unscathed. But their relationship eventually gets tested and feebly survives. Although the relationship between Sami and Ora is interesting and provocative, after the trek to the Galilee begins, Sami is forgotten as if Grossman had created Sami solely to introduce the daily conflicted Israeli experience and once that purposed is served, he no longer appears in the novel. The histories of Ora,Ilan, Adam, Ofer and Avram are woven skillfully with the present scenes between Ora and Avram. Yet, this device of telling the past would be more effective if there was less of it. The more that it happens, the more it produces a scrim between who the character is and what we are told the character is. Most of Ilan and Adam are told to us, not shown, and that can be a bit heavy after awhile. We don't know much of Ofer except what Ora tells us and in the end, this reveals more about Ora that Ofer which is an effective technique. Ora's pain and Avram's pain are so different yet equally excruciating and they manage to comfort each other with their own manifestations of empathy.

Two people, one fearful of, the other scarred from it, inch away from their extremes to meet in the middle--the common ground of Ofer. Although the narrative is intricate and the structure is complicated, their is no swift climax that delivers truths that deny or confirm their fears. Instead, Grossman unveils the idea of intimacy between two people that in finding each other again, find a value in their own lives they thought they lost to war. War itself gives no answers and the questions it asks have no redeeming answers, a trial of humanity with no end and no judgment in the end. It is destruction and that is it. All that we can do, any of us, is not surrender to it and to not be defeated by its hopelessness. Grossman eloquently tells a story that affirms this.

This is an amazing work of poignancy and craftsmanship, a mournful exploration of the psychological damages of pain from war and life. The book is thought-provoking and nuanced. I did find flaw with the prose, lots of people hissing lines and some cases of one sentence too many. Perhaps this is a subjective preference, but as ornate as the internal machinations of Ora are, it seems that Grossman overwrites to ensure that the reader understands the exact psychological state she is experiencing. He tries to make her emotions concrete and this doesn't always work. But the richness in character and story details compensates for some of this. No character is left underdeveloped or flat. The task of translating this was monumental, to be sure, but I did question some of the choices. Overall, Jessica Cohen's efforts are admirable. To the End of the Land is a testament to the ravages of war and no one understands this better than Grossman who lost one of his sons to war while he was writing this book. This belongs alongside Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone as necessary war fiction. This is no understanding war, only surviving and witnessing and Grossman let's us know that it can be done but not without scars and courage.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Barbara A I am amazed that you opened your review with this specific passage, for I, too, was deeply struck by it. As a grandmother of nine, reaching a stage where I sense that I am irrelevant to my children's lives, I truly felt that Ora was reflecting on my life as well as hers.

Monica Carter Barbara A wrote: "I am amazed that you opened your review with this specific passage, for I, too, was deeply struck by it. As a grandmother of nine, reaching a stage where I sense that I am irrelevant to my childre..."

I am glad that passage struck you. Such a wonderful and engaging book. Thank you for reading!

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