Two deaths hover over the pages of "To the End of the Land." One is only hinted at, the other documented; one is fictional, the other all too factual. And there is no way to unravel them in responding to this new, much-awaited novel by Israeli author David Grossman. Both endow this penetrating work with its inescapable sense of foreboding.
Anyone who closely follows events in the Middle East probably knows that one of Grossman's sons, Uri, died as a tank soldier in the final days of the 2006 Lebanon war. Both a patriot and a peacenik, Grossman made Uri's death a national issue, futilely demanding an explanation from Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
As for the other death, it is the one that seems to await another young Israeli soldier, the fictional Ofer. Early in the book, just as his mandatory service in the army has ended, Ofer chooses to re-enlist, amid the wave of suicide bombings in the second intifada. Through the expansive and sometimes ungainly pages of "To the End of the Land," his mother, Ora, remembers his life.
More than that, she flees what she expects to be his death. Not unlike the title character in Tim O'Brien's antiwar novel "Going After Cacciato," Ora tries to outrun mortality itself. Even as she hikes through northern Israel, with her cell phone turned off, fantasizing that she can hide from the army's casualty-notification officers, she insistently mourns the child who may or may not still be alive.
"Twenty years we had," she tells herself at one point. "A long time. . . . The fact we somehow managed to walk between the raindrops without really getting splattered even once, from any war or terrorist attack, from any rocket, grenade, bullet, shell, explosive device, sniper, suicide bomber, metal marbles, slingstone, knife, nails. The fact that we just lived out a quiet, private life."
These words spring from reality as much as from imagination. At the time his son was killed, Grossman explains in a brief epilogue, he was already far along in the book; he made revisions after sitting shiva. Yet "To the End of the Land" is much more than repurposed fact. Grossman has produced a sprawling novel that stretches over nearly 35 years of Israeli history. Along with war and peace, life and death, Grossman reckons with the emotional and sexual geometry of Israelis, particularly the secular liberals now in middle age, much like their author.
The triangle that defines this novel consists of one woman and two men who first met as teenage hospital patients on the eve of the 1967 war. Ora, of course, is the female; the males are Ilan and Avram, best friends. In time, Ora falls in love with Avram. Then, while he is recovering from Egyptian torture as a prisoner in the 1973 war, she takes physical and psychic solace with Ilan. Seeking later to heal Avram from impotence, one of torture's effects, she seduces him.
Thus she winds up with two sons - Adam, sired by Ilan, and Ofer, by Avram. Ilan ultimately becomes a live-in father to both children in a pleasant suburb of Jerusalem. Avram, inhabiting a trashy section of Tel Aviv, has to be talked into his filial role by Ora. And that talking, a major part of the novel's narrative, takes place after she cajoles him into joining her for the hiking trip, a trip she had planned to take with Ofer until his re-enlistment.
If these events sound a bit too schematic, that is indeed a shortcoming. The kind of symmetry that makes for a powerful Bible story seems a bit contrived in modern fiction. One forgets the architecture quickly, though, as Ora and Avram proceed on their journey of both external and internal discovery, less like Huck and Jim than the tormented and weirdly persistent Vladimir and Estragon.
Grossman writes with harrowing detail and rhetorical restraint about Avram's torture. The beatings, electric shocks and rapes leave him, upon being repatriated to Israel, capable only of whispering to Ora, "Pity they didn't kill me."
One triumph of this flawed but urgent book is that, by its end, without the slightest sentimentality, Ora has brought Avram all the way back into life. It is the one achievement, tragically, that not even as brilliant a novelist as Grossman could do for his Uri.