TORONTO — Israel’s struggle for existence is a theme Israeli novelists cannot usually slough off, says David Grossman, the internationally renowned novelist.
“You can’t turn your back on this reality,” he told the Toronto Jewish Book Fair at Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue on Oct. 23.
Grossman, here to promote his latest novel, To the End of the Land, said “the situation,” or ha matzav – Israel’s ever-present conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours – invariably casts a giant shadow on a writer’s creative direction.
Fresh from winning this year’s Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Grossman explained he wanted to write about ha matzav from the point of view of a normal Israeli family.
In his novel, a woman and her old friend, her former lover, take a hike through the Israeli countryside after their son returns to his army unit. According to a review in the Globe and Mail, the book is about “multiple journeys through time and space.”
Grossman had nearly completed the novel when his son, Uri, 20, was killed in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War in August 2006.
Uri lost his life when his tank was hit by a Hezbollah missile. Three days earlier, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Grossman and major Israeli writers had called for a ceasefire.
Four months after his son’s untimely death, Grossman denounced the then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for a failure of leadership.
In an allusion to these traumatic events, Grossman said ha matzav, “this almost impossible situation of ever-lasting war,” has an effect on him.
Grossman made his comments as he answered questions from interviewer and fellow writer Noah Richler, the son of the late Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler.
Describing Israel as “a war zone,” Grossman lamented that Israelis cannot imagine “a situation of peace” and feel that their destiny is to live and die by the sword.
He acknowledged that a “political layer” coats To the End of the Land, but said that the “human condition” interests him more.
When he begins a novel, he observed, he never knows what the ending will be. “My books surprise me.”
Grossman admitted that writing this novel was “an excuse” to hike the Israel Trail, which runs the length of Israel from the Lebanese border to Eilat. He spent 32 days on the winding trail, sometimes in the company of his wife, Michal.
Born in Jerusalem, and now living in a town near the capital, Mevasseret Zion, Grossman described Israel as the only country in which he feels truly at home.
He likened Israel to “an idea,” saying it encompasses the story of a people who returned to their ancestral home against all odds and created a democracy and revived the ancient Hebrew language.
Grossman dwelled briefly on one of his previous books, The Yellow Wind, a non-fictional account of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank that made him famous.
He recalled that Yitzhak Shamir, the then Israeli prime minister, berated him for writing a “literary fantasy.” But three months later, the first Palestinian uprising erupted, jolting Israelis into the realization that Israel is an occupying power.
During the short question-and-answer period, Grossman asked for “literary” rather than “political” questions. But most of the questions he fielded turned on politics.
He talked about his contacts with Palestinians during the Oslo peace process era, expressing regret they had ended but hope they might resume one day.
Praising U.S. President Barack Obama, Grossman said he understands the contradictions and nuances of Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, and is the only politician who can “make things move” in terms of constructive peace negotiations.
He said Israel needs “a friend in the White House” who is both “attentive to our situation” and “sensitive” to the needs of both sides.