Israeli author David Grossman’s latest novel recreates the lives of Ora, Ilan, and Avrum, three teenagers who meet in a hospital isolation ward during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
This makes for an unlikely triangle: children of a struggling country who, despite the extraordinary victory of Israel against Nasser’s Egypt, still find themselves living in a land that remains vulnerable to its enemies.
Peace is as distant as a fading dream. Avrum is a voluble, eloquent, and sensitive young man whose talent for writing and observation are outsized and often clumsy. Ilan is painfully reserved and ambitious. Both men fall in love with Ora, whose life was traumatized by the sudden death of her best friend in high school. They come into each others’ lives as they recover from an illness which separates them from the outside world and create a bond that will be tested by war, sexual passion, and repressed memories.
We are brought into their lives by what Grossman offers so brilliantly: descriptions of the unmitigated texture of everyday life fraught with subtle and unsettling meaning.
Ora eventually marries Ilan and they have two children, Adam and Ofer, who grow up in a world which is divided into those who are either “for us” or “against us.” And as their younger son, Ofer, soon learns, Israel has friends who are too few and too far away and enemies who are too many and far too close at hand. During the Yom Kippur War, Avrum is taken prisoner by the Egyptians. When he returns he is a broken man. Ilan and Ora take turns in trying to heal his wounds, but the torture that Avrum endured has all but destroyed him.
Ofer is the shared locus in the lives of the three old friends. He is the Isaac to a modern Akeda, not just a young man bound by military duty, but also a symbol of a country bound to a fate which relentlessly is tested against its most sacred values and principles.
Ora’s life has been filled with anxiety over the fate of her sons as they guard checkpoints, evading suicide bombers and fulfilling their military obligations. She looks forward to the time when Ofer finishes his service requirements. As a gift to themselves, mother and son have decided that they will walk the land. It will be a special time between them, a glorious adventure through the beauties of the Israeli landscape.
At the last moment, the second Intifada breaks out and Ofer reenlists. Ora is once again plunged into a miasma of fear and uncertainty. As she looks at the packed bags she and Ofer would have taken on their trip, she realizes she cannot stay at home, stricken with the belief that as long as she is not there, the dreaded messengers will never come to announce the death of her son.
But with whom shall she now walk the land? Her husband Ilan has left her (for the second time) and together with Adam are away in South America. She has been out of touch with Avrum for years, yet she calls a surprised and frightened Avrum and drags this drug-polluted, overweight, almost incapacitated old friend on a walk through Israel.
The heart and soul of Grossman’s novel is in that walk, and in the conversation punctuated by memories and revelations which brings about a slow return of Avrum to life. The conversation also reveals the moral difficulties — as Grossman sees it — of Israel’s survival in the present political circumstances.
Fleeing from the dreaded messengers who might bring bad news and walking the land as Abraham was asked to do by God to take hold of it, Avrum and Ora caress the sacred earth, make love to (and on) it, and see and feel with a clarity that is both astonishing and life-affirming every blade of grass, every flower, every tree, every mountain and trail, every sunrise and sunset, the special fragrance of the breezes, and the heavy odor of the still and stagnant air. Israel’s landscape has never been more beautifully detailed or exquisitely described.
As a tragic irony, while Grossman was writing this novel, his 20-year-old son, Uri, was killed in the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war. So the novel, with its implicit warning about living by illusions both personal and national, is a symbol of a people who are at home or not at home, living in the land and on the land hoping that the dreaded messenger will never come, hoping that at the last moment the angel will freeze Abraham’s hand in midair as he is about to bring it down on his son’s body, and that life will resume, or better yet, begin again unhampered and unencumbered by illusions, both personal and political, and no longer tested by moral and ethical considerations which have no solution.
Grossman has written another masterpiece. One doesn’t have to agree with his political ideas to appreciate his literary and humane perceptions about contemporary life in the Land of Israel.