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Betrayal: On David Grossman | The Nation

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Betrayal: On David Grossman

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JIM HOLLANDER/AP IMAGESDavid Grossman winning an EMET Prize in Jerusalem, 2007

About the Author

Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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In 1962, when David Grossman was an 8-year-old schoolboy in Jerusalem, his father handed him a Hebrew translation of Sholem Aleichem's Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son, a collection of stories evoking the lost world of the Grossmans' Yiddish-speaking ancestors. "Do you like it?" his father asked. Grossman was too young to understand it, but he managed to make his way through the book and was soon engrossed in a six-volume set of Aleichem's stories, soaking up details about tailors, milkmen and matchmakers. He had come to grasp that his father's gesture was an invitation. "I realized that for the first time, he was inviting me over there, giving me the keys to the tunnel that would lead from my childhood to his," Grossman recalled in a recent essay.

Grossman's immersion in Aleichem's fictional universe was so deep that a year later he entered a trivia contest about it hosted by a popular radio quiz show. Soon after, he was hired as a child actor at Kol Israel, the state broadcasting station. "It's a whole reality expressed only through language," Grossman has said. "As soon as I started working at the station, I learned how much you can do with the human voice." While completing his army service years later, Grossman began jotting down poems, songs and confessions in military report logs. He was discovering another use for his voice. Some time later, after an argument with his girlfriend, Michal (who is now his wife), he sat down and wrote his first story, "Donkeys," about an American soldier who escapes to Austria during the Vietnam War. The experience was transformative. "Writing allows me to explore situations that are impossible for me to explore in my life," Grossman has said. "Emotionally, I am an extreme person, and writing makes it possible for me to go on."

Navigating extreme emotions has been a particularly vexing challenge for Grossman of late. Early one morning in August 2006, unexpected visitors roused him from his sleep: they were officers from the Israeli army, come to relay the news that his younger son, Uri, had been killed when a missile struck his tank in southern Lebanon. The incident occurred in the final days of the war against Hezbollah, which began that summer with barely a murmur of dissent in Israel and ended, thirty-three days later, with equally faint popular backing. Grossman, a novelist and longtime peace advocate, had initially supported the war on the grounds that Israel had the right to defend itself against an armed militant group that had attacked it without provocation. But several weeks into the conflict, he appeared at a press conference with the novelists A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz (both of whom had also supported the war) to call for a cease-fire and to protest the Israeli government's plan to launch a ground invasion. No cease-fire was brokered; the ground invasion commenced. Two days later came the knock on Grossman's door.

Grossman's latest collection of essays and speeches, Writing in the Dark, concerns the impact of grief and violence on the body politic and the private imagination. It is not about Uri, however, whom Grossman has refused to discuss publicly, but rather the precarious and necessary place of literature in a disaster zone. As Grossman observes in the opening essay, "The arbitrariness of an external force that violently invades the life of one person, one soul, preoccupies me in almost all my books."

The burden of arbitrary death, and the looming threat of assault and injury, could easily lead an Israeli writer to tell his fellow citizens what many would most like to hear: that they have been saddled with this burden by their enemies. Yet Grossman doesn't offer such false consolation. For him, the act of writing is a process of jarring loose assumptions and stripping away emotional defenses through imaginative journeys into places it might otherwise be too painful or too frightening to go. Some years ago, reflecting on a story he was writing that featured a bitter, emotionally unstable protagonist, he described his desire to have the tale surprise him. "More than that, I want it to actually betray me," he wrote.

To drag me by the hair, absolutely against my will, into the places that are most dangerous and most frightening for me. I want it to destabilize and dissolve all the comfortable defenses of my life. It must deconstruct me, my relations with my children, my wife, and my parents; with my country, with the society I live in, with my language.

When Grossman learned of Uri's death, he was at work on a novel, his seventh, about a woman whose younger son is sent on a military operation and who has a premonition that the mission will end badly. To avoid being home to receive the news, the woman embarks on a walking tour, crossing Israel by foot while scrawling notes about her son in a journal. The book, Isha Borahat Mibesora ("A Woman Flees Tidings"), was published, in Hebrew, last spring. Grossman completed it only after he had been dragged by the hair into the nightmare his protagonist strains to avoid.

Grossman's first novel was The Smile of the Lamb, the story of an unlikely bond formed between a Palestinian civilian and an Israeli soldier he has captured and threatened to kill. Told in the voices of four interlocking characters, among them a cynical Israeli army commander too jaded to believe in justice, the action unfolds in a small town in the West Bank, a detail that might not qualify as noteworthy today. It was different in the ferment of 1982, the year Grossman completed the book and Israel's invasion of Lebanon sparked massive peace demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Among young Israelis, assumptions about the country's benign regional designs were unraveling. Though Grossman's debut work of fiction drew mixed reviews--the book's Palestinian character, a half-blind hunchback named Khilmi who lives in a cave, is mildly cartoonish--he marked himself as the voice of a new generation, one unafraid to wade across a political and imaginative divide. The Smile of the Lamb was the first Israeli novel set in the occupied territories, where becoming jaded about justice was hard to avoid.

In 1986 Grossman published See Under: Love, an ambitious reimagining of the Holocaust that unspools in the mind of a 9-year-old boy named Momik, who wants to learn more about "Over There," the mysterious world from which his parents and the other adults with numbers tattooed on their arms had fled. The choice of subject might seem familiar: no issue pervades Israeli culture more thoroughly than the Holocaust, with Yad Vashem the first stop for foreign statesmen and brigades of Western tourists. But See Under: Love is set in a different time, when the Holocaust was a source of unspeakable shame in a young nation desperately trying to imbue its citizens with a sense of heroism and national pride. This is the moral universe Momik inhabits, and the same one in which Grossman, who was born in 1954 in Jerusalem, came of age. Grossman's father, a bus driver, fled his native Poland in 1936. His mother was born in Palestine. Though neither of them had numbers tattooed on their arms, Grossman grew up with a keen awareness of how easily this might have been their fate. Every day announcements of people searching for relatives floated across the radio dial: "Rachel, daughter of Perla and Abraham Seligson from Przemysl, is looking for her little sister Leah'leh, who lived in Warsaw between the years..." The "silence and fragmented whispers" haunted Grossman because, like Momik, he felt he could not understand a part of himself--where he came from, what he was doing in Israel--without grasping what had happened there. "I had to ask these questions of myself," he says, "and I had to reply in my own words."

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