In 1987 the Israeli novelist David Grossman published The Yellow Wind, a searching, sympathetic portrait of life in the occupied West Bank. The book marked a watershed in Israeli culture, presenting an image of the Palestinians that was rarely seen in the Hebrew press–not as rejectionist “others” but as poorer neighbors whose idealized past and contemporary struggle for statehood were uncomfortably familiar. The Yellow Wind was also unusually frank in its depiction of the refugees’ grievous condition and their subjugation under Israeli rule, and Grossman’s sense of mounting tension within the camps was prescient: A few months after the book’s release the first intifada broke out, inaugurating an independence struggle in the occupied territories that continues to this day.
Since then Grossman has spoken out consistently in favor of a two-state solution, most recently as a signatory to the Geneva Accord, an unofficial alternative to the road map that specifies terms for a final-status agreement. Yet as the scope of his political influence has widened, his fiction has turned increasingly inward. Perhaps in defiance of reality, Grossman has constructed an imaginary Israel where violent conflict breaks out only through allegory or emotion. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published the English translation of Her Body Knows, a pair of erotic novellas written at the height of the second intifada. In “Frenzy,” a man’s obsession with his wife’s infidelity leads to his own, private betrayal. In the title story, a novelist writes a vindictive roman à clef about her mother and recites it at her deathbed. Both stories are taut psychological dramas; neither makes even a passing mention of the intifada.
For our interview, Grossman suggested we meet at the Montefiore Windmill, a Jerusalem landmark. Built in 1857 by a British Zionist named Moses Montefiore, the flour mill was beset by failures and closed after a few years of spotty service. Today it survives as a symbol of early Jewish settlement beyond the Old City and as a memorial site commemorating the local struggle between Arab forces and the Zionist Haganah during the 1948 war. For Grossman, though, its history is also personal. While writing See Under: Love (1989), a structurally daring novel in which the Holocaust is reimagined from a multiplicity of perspectives, he took up residence at the artistic retreat located on the same grounds.
After a brief tour, we sat down for coffee and cheesecake in the elegant Mishkenot Sha’ananim Restaurant, near a window with a stunning view of the surrounding hills. Grossman, dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, spoke openly, affably, with a flair for metaphor. When the conversation turned to fiction, his eyes flickered with excitement. When it turned to politics, he stabbed a finger in the air, and his tone grew sharp. One has the impression of a man torn between his creative flights and the inescapable grasp of his homeland.
What is the role of politics in your fiction?
Like most writers who work in a traumatized area, Israeli writers are judged according to how political we are in our writing. But I can’t accept that. Sometimes I write a book that has a strong relevance to the political reality of everyday life in Israel, and sometimes I write about the lives of people who do not have any straight relationship to politics but who, by being Israelis, are affected by what happens here. For example, Someone to Run With  does not deal with the conflict with the Palestinians. But it deals with homeless children in Jerusalem, and the fact that there is no money to take care of them derives from the fact that so much of our money goes to security and settlements. There is this metaphor that I like, of a suit of armor without a knight inside it. This is how we are now: All our energy, all our creativity, money, effort–it all goes to defend the borders. And in the end, this is not enough. The suit of armor is only there to defend the person inside. Be My Knife  and Someone to Run With and Her Body Knows–they are about the things that politics confiscates from us.