You hear a lot about novels that weave the intimate details of people’s lives into the history of the times. Novels that explore the large, pressing nature of our modern lives through the small details of the lives of people as they live them. David Grossman’s To The End of the Land is a novel that does this without you even realizing it.
There is a short (in the scheme of things the 47 pages that make up the Prologue is short) section followed by The Walk, a section that makes up the rest of the novel. And what a walk it is. The story, at its core, is a love triangle. But one so different, so detailed and rich, that the points of the triangle seem like worlds unto themselves. We meet the girl Ora, along with Avram and Ilan as they all recuperate in a hospital somewhere. It’s never defined just how they all came to be there. They just are. Every body, every story, needs to start somewhere. Once upon a time. They become friends. Lifelong friends as it turns out. Both Avram and Ilan fall in love with Ora. Avram is the intense one, the one who is most desperately in love. Of course, it’s Ilan, the rational one, who gets the girl. They marry. They have a child, Adam. Later Ora will have a child with Avram – Ofer. But before this all happens, they all serve their time in the IDF. Ora gets out first and goes back to school. Avram and Ilan, on leave, tell Ora to put their names in a hat and to choose one. When Ilan wins, Avram returns to the war with Egypt, where he is captured, and being an intelligence officer, is tortured unmercifully. His life is changed forever.
Although both Ora and Ilan nurse Avram back from the land of the living dead, he takes himself out of their lives. It’s years later, and Ofer (Avram’s child, but Ofer does not know this) is called back into the service just as he is about to be discharged, He volunteers to extend his service. Ora cannot stand to wait for him to return. Can’t go about her normal routine, while all the while Ofer is in harm’s way. She and Ofer had planned a hiking trip, so Ora decides to go on her own, but stops to see Avram and drags him along. The Walk.
The Walk is a wonderful journey, wherein Avram slowly learns the story of the children – both Adam and Ofer. He had refused to ever see his son up to that point, refusing even to utter his name, or try to learn anything about him. On the walk, Ora begins to tell the story of the boys, of her desires, her fears, of life with Ilan, of her thoughts about Avram. The journey is long and the story is told haltingly, slowly, so as not to spook Avram, with too much information, too soon. It’s a journey of redemption for both of them. She also realizes that her story is a sort of “eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again.”
Ora is a magnificently etched character, finely drawn with a depth and a complexity rarely found in fiction. It has to be said though, that this was probably only possible due to the length of the novel. Which is not to say, that the length contributed to the depth of the character. What I would say is that the length was necessary to completely picture Ora. And completely picture her we do. Once, on the walk, she ponders how she has got th where she is now, how she’s changed, and how changes in certainly inevitable. We grow old. She wonders (as does Avram sitting across from her) if she is accessible as she once was even to herself.
Ora hugs her knees, rationalizing the she isn’t all that accessible and permeable even to herself anymore, and that even she herself doesn’t go near that place inside 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.
The cruelty and futility of war is never far below the surface, yet it’s such a subtle connection that the primacy of the characters humanity is what we feel. Not anti-war sentimentality. The exception is a 40-page, brilliant tale of Ilan going out on his own to attempt to rescue Avram, who has gone missing. He discovers him on a one-way radio, so they cannot communicate with one another. But Ilan is able to listen to Avram’s monologue in a bunker with dead comrades around him. He even hears his capture by the Egyptians. Chilling.
Remember, that Ora undertook the journey as a way of keeping her son safe. She thought to avoid the ‘notifiers’. What she would not know, would not hurt her. As the author had nearly completed his novel, word came that his son Uri had been killed in the second war with Lebanon. As Grossman writes as a way of dealing with the seemingly never-ending conflicts between the Jewish state and Palestine, so Ora has kept the conflicts at bay on her sojourn into the heart of Israel. As far as she could go, To the end of the Land.