Blurb: “…depicting the emotional strains that family members of soldiers experience when their loved ones are deployed into combat.” (from Wiki)
I don’t know why but I, of Norwegian and Finlander roots, tend to read quite a lot of Israeli literature, but I do. I’ve read one other by Grossman, See Under: Love which was a very strange little book, imo. (No review on this site.)
But Grossman writes well and so far this book seems okay – (page 93 out of 653)
*** I got through Chapter 4 with these notes and then the book got so boring I could hardly stand it. Perhaps if I’d not read Wish You Were Here immediately prior I would have enjoyed this more. What we have is a frame (again) this time with Ora and Avram walking and her telling him the story of her life with their son and Avram’s best friend, Ilan, and the child she had by him. The details are revealed slowly – very slowly. What the reader is treated to is page after page of how the boys grew up and what they were like. Bo-ring- for the most part, with a few incidents of interest thrown in. Finally she tells him about Ilan’s activities and that’s pretty exciting for awhile (page 500!) (heh)
The book opens in 1967 with Ora, an adolescent Jewish girl from Haifa, in an Israeli hospital for a non-war related issue. The 1967 war (Six-Day War) breaks out while she’s there. There she meets a young boy named Avram and his friend Ilan. Ora has recently lost her best friend Ava was killed by a bomb. They talk about the communities like Yesud HaMa’ala and other things – get close, kiss.
Chapter 1 – 1996 (I think) and Ora is now grown, was married and divorced, works for a Jewish enterprise in Nevada. She has two sons, Adam and Ofer who have to do the required military service – Ofer is just now released from duty. She uses a taxi service to pick him up because she has lost her license to drive but she is close to the driver, Sami, who is Arab but totally trusted … but is still Arab, with his own feelings.
Ora is torn – Ofer has left again for emergency voluntary duty instead of spending the weekend with her as planned for his discharge weekend. She thinks some pretty morbid thoughts – “…the last movie he would have seen?” Their parting is on the TV news – Ofir whispers something pretty bad in her ear. – (foreshadowing) She tells Ofer she is going on their trip anyway, alone, without so much as a phone. He’s upset – she has to do it.
Her ex-husband, the boys’ father, (Avrim – Ilam?) , calls and she has to tell him that Ofer has returned to the Army for the emergency. He (?) is devastated, been gone for 3 years, no television. He’s alone, wants her to come and she wants to go with him although he lives in a dump. She leaves a note for Ofer (in case he returns before she does) and one for the maid and goes. Who is whom?
She is having an “affair” with someone called “Character.” She calls and tells him then leaves a message on her machine saying she’ll be gone a month.
Then the story backs up to when she and Sami left Ofer at his weekend duty station.
Ora calls Sami to take her to Galilee or Tel Aviv, but he is reluctant and she hears what is happening in his home – not good – violent talk, slaps(?) – He finally consents with a request to stop somewhere in Jerusalem. She takes the two backpacks because she and Ilem will hike. When Sami comes he has a small, sick boy, Rami, with him wearing old clothes from Ora’s son. She will tell Ilam how Sami is treating her. (?)
But Sami and Ora and the boy (real name Yazdi) are stopped for a security check and it’s Ora who is suspicious – two backpacks.
The boy is the son of a man who works for Sami and is, surprisingly, from the Territories. They continue – history of Ora and Ilam – prosperous career, nice homes.
Then Sami takes her to a elementary school-hospital for Illegal Refugees on the outskirts of Jerusalem. This is a totally touching scene – they leave Yazdi there – Ora is very moved.
Ora wakes up with Avram somewhere near Galilee. Sami has apparently gone to Tel Aviv to get him and then driven them to where they are and dumped them off. There had been a fight/squabble. Huge backflash to how she got him out of the house and to where they are. She is running away and has to keep moving so “they” don’t find her – she doesn’t want to be told of her son’s death. She’s now taking Avram with her but he’s drugged (denial?) so they have to just carry him. A lot of stuff takes place in the dark – Sami didn’t help Ora get Avram to the car –
They hike on a little road and come to a locked fence with a gate which they pass through locking it on the way back – it’s just a wire “lock.” Then they come to a stream and although it’s waist deep and has a substantial current, they make it across – Ora helping Avram a great deal. When they are really across he realizes that things will be different now – the old is on the other side of the stream.
Backflash – the night before with Sami – she’d told Sami to drive them “…to where the country ends.” And then there are back-thoughts within back-flashes of father in hospital for eyes – blindness – Orem helps father as he adjusts to his new eyesight.
Back in taxi – the night before Galilee – Sami turns radio on – switches to an Arab station – becomes very self-centered in her ideas – asks Sami to turn it off – he doesn’t. She’s hot. Very convoluted. She screams – he turns it off. Avram has to go to the bathroom – Sami finally stops – the bitter look between Sami and Ora goes back to Joseph Trumpeldor in 1929 and the riots of 1936 . Avram doesn’t get out of the car in time and when he is out Sami leaves.
She plants pits to be trees and they pick up their backpacks – hers is orange for energy, his is blue for peace, calm, stability, security – or femininity. (He’s very small.) They move on – Avram is reminded of the Tel Hashomar hospital where he was catatonic. Avram and Ofer have not spoken for several years – Ora is forbidden to mention Ofer.
They are about to cross the stream again a bit upstream – it would be back to the prior side – Avram wants to go, Ora doesn’t know. She explains to him that she is running away – then she tells him about the separation from Ilam. He’s surprised – but she challenges him with “where were you” and “none of your business.” Ilam is in South America with Adam who is even more angry with Ora. Avram has changed – he is like the “lights out” since he was 22 years old. But in spite of all this – they are becoming closer again.
More zig-zags like the plot and the theme:
“They walked this way and that like a pendulum, and she wondered if he understood that they were intentionally disorienting themselves so they could not find their way back.”
She is okay with just walking and being silent. She might tell him a bit about Ofer:
“So at least he’d know who Ofer was in general outlines, in chapter headings. So at least he would know this person he had brought into the world.”
*** This is an example of the ambiguity I’ve learned to be careful about – did Ofer father the child or birth him? (tricky)
They sleep in the tents and Ora has a really bad dream about Ofer getting killed and the military finding her to tell her. The next day is walking and the pain of Ofer seeming to be inside her. She can’t stop walking. Then the back story to when Ofer was in pain from claustrophobia and yet joined the Armored Corps division. She starts to hear him. And she can’t talk to Avram about Ofer. He has spent 21 years separating himself. (apparently Avrem is the father) She even wonders if Avram is really there – she figures Avram considers Ofer to be the mistake of his lifetime –
“…with every rude push he gave, she was insulted to the depths of her soul and had to remind herself again that Avram’s tenuous equilibrium seemed to be based on a total, hermetic self-defense against Ofer, against the fact of Ofer, against what, to him, was undoubtedly the mistake of his lifetime.”
Yet Avram has counted the days to Ofer’s release from military duty. He’d been in the Abbasiya (Egyptian) Prison and seen torture – been tortured. He knows he won’t help her – feels he is a traitor – thinks about Ofer – imagines him then becomes disgusted with himself. He lives with Neta, a much younger woman who leaves from time to time.
Avram walks around the tree – thinking about his past and the past month since Neta has left – he’s done nothing – out of work -volunteers at the library, started to obsess about Ofer. Hibernating.
They join and talk and she tells him she has to talk about Ofer so if Avram will go away she can talk to herself and walk. It doesn’t matter “… where I am but where I’m not…”
Avram can’t even say Ofer’s name although he’s apparently willing to talk – but he feels pressured by Ora about it. He really doesn’t want to be in a “family.”
“It’s like being subjected to a permanent electrical shock, or like living in an eternal lightning storm. Is that what you want?” (p. 172)
She pounds the ground – Avram watches. She digs a pit with a rock and sticks her face in it. They are in the rich Hula Valley – Avram wants to help her but he can’t because of his prison experiences – digging his own grave three times – and then is buried in it – he gave up his life and died.
But as she is telling the earth how to care for Ofer, Avram grabs her and pulls her back. Remembering back – when he got out of the prisons he thought he wished they’d killed him.
The two rest and a strange band of really strange walkers comes along led by a man named Avika. The get convinced to join the group Avram worries, Ora is happy and after zig-zagging awhile land in a moshva.
(Oh I am so reminded of The Blue Mountain – both have to do with communities set up by the first and second Aliyahs)
To the people of the moshva Avika has “brought the light.”
I keep seeing an allegory here – I’m not sure I entirely buy into the political message.
POV switches to Avram – He wants to help Ora – how –
Setting – all over Israel – Haifa – from 1967 and again in 1996 – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Galilee, other smallish towns and communities in the territories.
Oraleh – woman as adolescent in 1967, and then as grown in 1996, married to
Avram – old friend of Ora’s – 1967 and
Ada – girlhood friend of Ora’s – she died in 1967
Ofer – Ora’s son
Sami – Ora’s taxi driver
Ilan – Ora’s ex-husband – met in 1967, good friend of Avram’s.
Adam – Ora’s second son
Character – Ora’s lover(?)
Yazdi – the boy with Ora and Sami, very ill –
** Structure – Prologue (Chap 1) in 1967, Chap 1 – 3 more or less forward chronology but with the style of Grossman regularly going forward a few beats and then using the next paragraphs to catch up. This could be thematic / metaphoric I suppose – the two steps forward and one step back of the Israeli/Palestinian situation.
** Style – nicely written but deeply ambiguous – it goes with the territory –
** Symbolism and allusions –
Lots of literary references to Israeli authors – other authors – Ibsen, Ionesco, Cocteau
** war and children –
** denial – Ora is running away because she doesn’t want to know –
** darkness – in the original hospital, in the night road, in the hospital, in Avram’s apartment,
** motherhood – Ora, of her boys, of Avram, of Yazdi, the woman in the IR hospital breastfeeding,
** ambiguity of the whole situation – it’s a style, too.