Book of the month: David Grossman

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Since I started asking for recommendations of books to read back in late 2011, I’ve been inundated with suggestions of tempting-sounding titles from around the globe. To this day, I receive messages and comments from booklovers across the world sharing some of their favourite reads with me. I still add all valid recommendations to the list and hope to continue doing so for a long time to come.

Among the welter of titles I have heard about over the last three years, however, there have been several that have stood out as being particularly admired. November’s book of the month is a prime example.

Its writer, David Grossman, has been mentioned to me by a large number of readers – so much so that I very nearly picked one of his novels as my Israeli choice for A Year of Reading the World. It was only my curiosity about the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s Blooms of Darkness that made me plump for that instead.

So it’s great to be able to report back to you on one of Grossman’s books now: To the End of the Land, which was translated into English in 2010, two years after the original appeared in Hebrew.

The novel tells the story of three Jewish characters, Ora, Avram and Ilan, whose lives are intertwined from the moment they meet as teenage patients in a plague hospital in 1967. As they grow up, they are shaped and twisted by their loyalties and the cruel events of Israel’s modern history, which simultaneously bind and divide them through a web of secrets and regrets. But when her younger son Ofer volunteers for further service with the Israel Defence Forces, Ora is unable to stand the pressure anymore. Terrified that every moment will bring a knock at the door to notify her of his death, she sets out with Avram on a trek across the country to Galilee, covering old ground in search of peace.

Few books contain so many deft depictions of the fluctuating dynamics of human relationships. From the seismic shifts that break, warp and split lives, to the momentary lapses and dissemblances that colour conversations, this book has it all, with joyous bursts of humour to boot. For example, we see the moment-by-moment collapse of a longstanding relationship during the disastrous taxi ride taking Ofer to the front for which Ora unthinkingly books her trusted Arab driver, Sami, and through it the way that ‘the fears and hatred [they] both drank with [their] mother’s milk’ make certain things impossible – for all that Ora and Sami may laugh and rail together against ‘the long-winded indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs’ in times of relative tranquillity.

The descriptions of the wild places Ora and Avram pass through, dotted with memorial plaques to fallen soldiers and ruined Arab villages, are powerful, but it is the mental and emotional landscape that takes centre stage. Among the many extraordinary passages are a series of narrations from Ora about her memories of raising her sons, which transfigure the mundane incidents of domestic life into searing revelations of the myriad ambiguities and moral compromises that go into making up a human being. The scene in which the young Ofer discovers the truth about where meat comes from will stay with me for a long time – as will Grossman’s afterword, in which he discusses briefly the death of his son in military service in 2006 (the experience, he says, changed ‘the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written’).

Congratulations have to go to translator Jessica Cohen for her work with what must have been a challenging text – just one of the many conundrums being a passage where Ofer’s brother Adam talks exclusively in rhyme. My only quibble was with the choice of the word ‘pub’ for many of the various bars featured in the text, but this may not bother American readers – at whom this version was primarily aimed.

The expansiveness of the story’s emotional excavations means that this is an unapologetically long book and it took me a while to read. Like its characters, it moves at walking pace. The investment of time is well worth it, though. As Ora herself reflects: ‘It’s a good thing the path is so long… This way, there’s time to get accustomed to all the changes.’

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Vintage Digital, 2010)

Israel: war wounds

I have a confession to make: I suffer from World War II novel fatigue. There are so many heart-rending, moving and harrowing books set during the years 1939-45 (as well as plenty of not so heart-rending, moving and harrowing ones) that a story in this category has to promise something out of the ordinary to persuade me to pick it up.

So when I heard that the Israeli novel on the 2012 shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was a war novel, I was pretty uninspired. If it hadn’t been for some very enthusiastic comments by members of the judging panel at the London Book Fair, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

However the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, which is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Jewish boy who seeks refuge in a Ukrainian brothel and enters into a sexual relationship with the prostitute who hides him, sounded intriguing. And when it beat the other contenders to the prize, I decided I had to find out whether this book, written by a Holocaust survivor, had something new to say about the events that ultimately led to Israel’s independence.

This is a novel that jumps in and out of the future tense. Starting on the eve of the boy Hugo’s birthday as his mother anticipates their impending separation, the narrative carries a strong sense of foreboding. This works partly through the dramatic irony that comes from the reader’s knowledge of subsequent historical events. Significantly, however, Appelfeld’s descriptions are so subtle and fresh that, were it not for the novel’s marketing, the reader might not even realise that this is a novel set during the war until several chapters in.

This freshness sets the characters free from the accumulated literary baggage of decades of war literature, giving Appelfeld the leeway to present them as individuals first. He does this by foregrounding details in language that is often disarming in its simplicity – the scene where Hugo says goodbye to his mother while trying to keep her for another minute then another, for example, is very touching.

The power of plain language becomes something of a theme in the book, with the prostitute Mariana telling Hugo at one point that ‘a spare way of speaking can also be colourful’. It’s a shame that Appelfeld doesn’t adhere to this when it comes to Hugo’s letters to his mother, which, full of phrases such as ‘the place is feverish’ and ‘in my heart I know that most of the fears are groundless’, have an odd ring to them. Whether these expressions are attempts on Appelfeld’s part to capture the pomposity of intelligent youth or instances of awkward translation, they jar against the subtle immediacy of the rest of the text.

The setting of the novel is very simple too, with much of the action taking place in Mariana’s room and the small closet in which Hugo sleeps. It’s a tribute to Appelfeld’s skill that he is able to sustain an engaging narrative with such a small array of characters and locations. This makes the final section after Mariana and Hugo leave the brothel all the more powerful for its contrast with what has gone before.

Barring one or two slightly repetitious passages, the intensity of the story builds towards the final chapters as a growing awareness of Jewish identity emerges in Hugo’s mind. This is summed up by a woman he encounters helping displaced people towards the end of the book. Her words suggest something of the sense of shared experience and kinship in the face of adversity that would underpin the formation of the future Jewish state:

‘We have to leave together and watch over one another. Brothers don’t say, I’ve already given. Brothers give more, and we have, thank God, a lot to give. One gives a cup of coffee and the other helps a woman bandage her wounds. One gives a blanket, and the other raises the pillow of a person who’s having trouble breathing. We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.’

Without doubt, this is a powerful and striking take on the events that shook the world 70 years ago. Even if it wasn’t the pick of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize judges, it is an accomplished and beautiful work.

Nevertheless, as the novel ended I found myself impatient to see how the story continued after the state of Israel declared its independence. I was curious about books set in the country in recent years and itched to read something like Sara Shilo’s The Falafel King is Dead or David Grossman’s To the End of Land to see how these narratives played out in light of all that has happened in the region since 1948. Ah well, maybe next year.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books, 2012)