Betrayal: On David Grossman
A year after the publication of See Under: Love, Grossman returned to the West Bank, this time as a correspondent for the small newsweekly Koteret Rashit, which had commissioned him to write an article about the occupation. Grossman, who is fluent in Arabic, spent seven weeks roaming around the West Bank. His dispatch filled an entire issue of the magazine and was soon published as a book, Ha-Zeman Ha-Tzahov ("The Yellow Time"). Israelis were shocked by its unflinching portrait of the hatred brewing in the territories and its suggestion that the plight of the Palestinians in some ways mirrored the travails of another exiled people, the Jews. As Grossman listened to an elderly Arab woman rhapsodize about the beautiful vineyard in the village in Israel where she once lived, he was reminded of his grandmother, who had been expelled from Poland. Later, at a military court in Nablus, he watched a Palestinian youth get sentenced for an offense that wasn't on his charge sheet and was moved to quote Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant": "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." Grossman's narrative was suffused, sometimes to the point of excess, with anguished introspection, leading some to dismiss it as the work of a yafeh nefesh ("beautiful soul"), a bleeding heart. Yet the book became a bestseller in Israel, and by the time it was translated into English and issued under a slightly altered title, The Yellow Wind, the first intifada had broken out, lending the book a prophetic glow.
Grossman hadn't seen the uprising coming. What he did notice was that serial abuses in the occupied territories corresponded with the serial abuse of language in Israel. Amos Oz once remarked that his excursion into writing political essays after the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War was triggered by a "linguistic reservation," his objection to the use of the word "liberated territories." (Only people, not mountains or valleys, can be liberated, Oz maintained.) Grossman underwent a similar awakening. At the time he received the assignment from Koteret Rashit, he was working as the anchor of a popular morning news program at Kol Israel. Not infrequently, the job required him to read brief items about violent incidents that had taken place in the West Bank or Gaza Strip--"A local youth was killed during disturbances in the Territories." Afterward, he would marvel at the "shrewdness" of the sentence:
"disturbances"--as if there were some order or normative state in the Territories that was briefly disturbed; "in the Territories"--we would never expressly say "the Occupied Territories"; "youth"--this youth might have been a three-year-old boy, and of course he never had a name.
Novelists may be uniquely equipped to detect these perversions of language, but this doesn't necessarily make them astute political observers. Yet as his next book affirmed, Grossman brings to his reporting a related skill: the art of listening. Sleeping on a Wire was built around conversations with Arab-Israeli artists, activists and citizens, a community rarely invited to remark on what kind of society "the Jewish state" should be. Unlike Oz, who composed his political writings at a safe distance from Arabs, Grossman anchored his observations in dialogue with them. The difference is not incidental: unlike many people in the Israeli peace camp, Grossman has never longed for a settlement that will separate Jews and Arabs. In Sleeping on a Wire, through the voices of people like Nazir Yunes, an Arab-Israeli doctor who described being turned away from a swimming pool after his children were overheard speaking Arabic, Grossman showed that the bitterness and frustration about Israel is not limited to Palestinians in the West Bank. He also tested the limits of his tolerance: for all his good will, Grossman found it challenging and unnerving to stand back and let his subjects do the talking. Hearing an Arab intellectual call for street protests in one scene, he felt himself recoil: "He speaks, and something unpleasant is slowly revealed to me.... How real and sincere is my desire for 'coexistence' with the Palestinians in Israel?" It was precisely this tension that lent the book its poignancy.
The high cost of concealing what is unpleasant has long preoccupied Grossman, and his willingness to pose questions that discomfit Israel's Jewish majority has led some people to label him a "post-" or "non-Zionist" Israeli (the critic Jacqueline Rose once described him as a "non-Zionist Zionist" in the London Review of Books). Such labels are misplaced. "The basic inspiration for Zionism was a noble idea," Grossman told The Paris Review in 2007. Despite his belief that a writer should hold nothing sacred, Grossman is a patriot who will go only so far in criticizing Israel, as was apparent during the recent war in Gaza. In an editorial in Ha'aretz published a few days after the conflict began, Grossman called for a cease-fire but did not question the decision to launch the attack.
Such views inevitably disappoint Israel's more unqualified critics, some of whom treat Grossman as one more apologist for the Jewish state's crimes. He would likely take their disappointment as a compliment. The radical element in Grossman's work lies not in his politics but in his determination to see past the limits of politics: to peel away the labels--"Arab," "Jew," "victim," "terrorist"--that color and distort how Israelis and Palestinians regard each other. In The Yellow Wind, there is an image of a corrupted body: the West Bank is "that kidney-shaped expanse of land" Grossman feels has been transplanted into him "against my wishes." It is the diagnosis of a universalist who clearly believes the germ of cruelty can infect anyone, the moment one erases another person's humanity, the moment one begins to speak a "mass language--a language that will consolidate the multitude and spur it on to act in a certain way, formulating justifications for its acts and simplifying the moral and emotional contradictions it may encounter." In a region overpopulated with hard men and women who view the world through a narrow prism, Grossman is that rare thing: a humanist who considers any form of certainty, not least his own, to be a trap.
Writing in the Dark is less a work of literary criticism or political analysis than an extended rumination on the struggle and the thrill of shaping words into stories and reclaiming their meaning and beauty from the "language defrauders and language rapists." The book is a response to a question Grossman first explored in See Under: Love, where he imagined what might have happened to him had he been stuck in a concentration camp: "What was the thing inside me that I could hold up against this attempt at erasure?" Grossman's answer reaches back to his novel Be My Knife (1998), the story of an epistolary love affair between two former classmates who never consummate their physical desires. "Listen," Yair, who makes his living selling rare books, informs Miriam:
I once read that Our Sages of Blessed Memory had the idea that we have one tiny bone in the body, above the end of the spine--they call it the "Luz." You can't kill it, it doesn't crumble after death and can't be destroyed by fire.
One suspects it is his Luz that has prevented Grossman from sharing the fate of one of his most endearing creations: the protagonist of his 1991 novel The Book of Intimate Grammar, a 12-year-old boy named Aron Kleinfeld, who is given to daydreaming, comic impersonations and turning words over in his head for the sheer pleasure of their sound. The novel is set on the eve of the Six-Day War, in a nation whose inhabitants speak a new, emancipated language. Yet the more Aron listens to the adults around him--the crude vows to crush the Arabs, the mangled syntax of their sentences--the more alienated he feels. To escape the suffocating atmosphere, he retreats into a cocoon, smuggling damaged words through the doors of the secret hospital he has created to perform surgery on them. All Aron wants is the freedom to invent stories and to dream, which is enough to make him a chronic misfit in a society where boys are supposed to be like his best friend, Gideon, a scout who aspires to be a fighter pilot. In the book's closing scene, having fallen in love with a classmate named Yaeli--who, naturally, falls for Gideon--Aron escapes from his misery by locking himself inside an abandoned refrigerator in a junkyard.