04 November 2010

Ofer and Uri

Few books I've read straddle the line between fiction and reality the way David Grossman's To the End of the Land does, or zoom as seamlessly between the universal and the particular. I've been living with this book for about a month, unable to absorb too much at a time, and then unable to stay away for too long. This is one of those books whose end feels like a death in the family.

Grossman's omniscient narrator usually stays close to the Israeli woman Ora, whose passions, fears, self-doubts, strength, stubbornness, and fierce mother-love drive the novel back and forth through its quarter century of memories and conversations. War and conflict saturate this book: it starts out with three teenage soldiers--Ora, Avram, and Ilan, a triangle of tension and generous mutual devotion--establishing their lifelong bond as they recover in a hospital during the 1967 war. The scene shifts to another military emergency, in 2000; Ora is accompanying her younger son to the military base where he will rejoin his unit; and, as they get stuck in a military-convoy traffic jam, she sits wondering at her own insensitivity in asking her long-time Arab driver and friend Sami to drive on this particular trip.

Having delivered her son Ofer to the base for this unexpected tour of duty after his military service was supposedly over, Ora must again endure the agonizing uncertainty of having a son in uniform in a time of crisis. She knows what happens when a son or daughter is killed in combat--she can't help imagining the little team of two soldiers and a doctor that would come to her doorstep with the terrible news; but if they cannot find her, the news would not become real, would it? Now is the time for her to take the long hike through northern Israel that she and her son had planned to celebrate the end of his military service.

Most of the novel is linked to this hike. She cannot take her older son Adam; he's in South America with his father Ilan, from whom she's now separated. She decides to take Avram--and "take" is just about the right verb, because simply to get him out of his apartment, she must overcome the resistance of his debilitating complex of unclarity and depression that are among the lingering effects of his injuries in the 1973 war. This is as far as my summary should go--you should join them yourself for this pilgrimage of discovery and insight, recriminations and reconciliations. But as I read my way through their journey, I found that the intimate details of family life, of homes, of sweet creativity and of desperate combat, provoked a flood of memories of my own, reawakening (for example) whole phases of my life as a parent that I'd nearly forgotten.

Ora takes this hike as a way, magical though it might be, of protecting her son on active duty. Of the "journey" of writing this book, author David Grossman writes in an afterword:
I began writing this book in May of 2003, six months before the end of my oldest son, Yonatan's, military service, and a year before his younger brother, Uri, enlisted. They both served in the Armored Corps.

Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters' lives. ("What did you do to them this week?" was his regular question.) He spent most of his service in the Occupied Territories, on patrols, lookouts, ambushes, and checkpoints, and he occasionally shared his experiences with me.

At the time, I had the feeling--or, rather, a wish--that the book I was writing would protect him.

On August 12, 2006, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War, Uri was killed in Southern Lebanon. His tank was hit by a rocket while trying to rescue soldiers from another tank. Together with Uri, all of the members of his tank crew were killed: Bnayah Rein, Adam Goren, and Alex Bonimovitch.

After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.
I remember that awful moment when I read about the death of Uri during that war, and I mentioned it here at the time.

Back in that 2006 posting, I also mentioned John Bolton's rejection of any equivalence between Lebanese deaths and Israeli deaths. The issue of "equivalence" and the legitimacy of historical comparison came up again forcefully via the Adbusters' feature "Truthbombs on Israeli TV." Is Adbusters provoking an instructive controversy or perpetuating "vile analogies [that] become a form of Holocaust minimilization"? (Quoting Bernie M. Farber of the Canadian Jewish Congress, via Mondoweiss.) The danger of over-the-top rhetoric is its effect of drawing attention to itself rather than to the larger message (which might be summarized as "Don't Jewish people have any kind of special sensitivity concerning the creation of ghettos?"). But I can't remember any recent examples of milder rhetoric doing the job, either. Are we condemned to the status of dumb spectatorship while all hope of long-term justice and mutual gain is ground out of the Palestinians and their Israeli well-wishers?

Note: Adbusters' editor Kalle Lasn, as quoted in Mondoweiss, charges that a large Canadian drugstore chain pulled Adbusters from its shelves as a result of lobbying by Bernie Farber or his organization. However, they deny that they had anything to do with the magazine being pulled. At this moment, the www.cjc.ca site seems to be down (and so is www.adbusters.org!), but see this story.

November 14 is this year's International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

"How far should forgiveness go?"

"I am wealthier than everyone, thanks to music": Haaretz quotes Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, who celebrates her 107th birthday later this month. See a video feature here, previewing an upcoming documentary.

"Should a pastor with an addiction be fired?"

Newest book on my wish list: Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship, by Peter Slade. Reviewed here. I remember long conversations with Dolphus Weary 35 years ago at Voice of Calvary in Mendenhall, Mississippi, so I know there's nothing naive about the Mission Mississippi strategy, even if it's not standard-issue activism. The strategy is rooted in the faith that the Body of Christ is real.

"Some words become history years after being spoken. Others carry historic weight as soon as they are uttered." For how many more years will Russia's most important non-extractive export be eloquent texts? (More context here.)

From Brazil: "Dilma [Rousseff]: the importance of a woman in the presidency."

Babbie Mason, "You Can Lean on Me," at a Gaither homecoming concert, "Good News" (2000)...

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