Walking 500km to write

Walking 500km to write
David Grossman

Acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman must walk to write and easily covers 6km every morning when thinking about a new book.

The longest and hardest journey for him has been the 500km he covered to complete To The End Of The Land, a novel written as his younger son Yuri at age 20 died during military service.

The book about an Israeli woman fearing for her son as he enters the army was published in Hebrew in 2008, translated into English two years later and has won multiple awards including France's Prix Medicis Etranger and the €40,000 Albatros Prize for an outstanding literary work in translation, awarded by the Gunter Grass Foundation in Germany.

Like most of his other works, To The End Of The Land is about life in Israel and the desperate need for an end to conflict, a desire that Grossman says he is increasingly cynical about.

"I am 60, I never experienced one day of peace in my life," he says in an interview earlier this week, a day after a private reading at the Israeli Embassy in Singapore. He made a visit here on his way back to Jerusalem from a holiday in Sri Lanka with wife Michal and daughter Ruthie (he has one other son, Yonatan). "My book is not about the abstract idea of peace, but the wish for normality, for a life with many layers, not only the narrow layer of survival."

"Usually I don't travel to accompany my books, but with To The End Of The Land, it was very important to me that I accompany it," adds the author of 11 novels and four works of non-fiction - a new book about a stand-up comedian was released in Hebrew earlier this week.

"I felt this book tells so much about the nuances of life in Israel and I need to accompany it to insist on the nuances. Usually when people hear about my country, they get it from TV and the media, they don't usually listen to nuances. The media tells us what we should be thinking, literature is about questions. If people come out of my books and are a little bit more confused, I've done my job."

With its complex cast of characters and fraught relationships, including between the protagonist and her Arab chauffeur, To The End Of The Land has justly taken on legendary status among the works of a writer already considered among the most gifted in his country - and also one of the most controversial.

He says if Israel had negotiated with the "Palestine government that includes Hamas", the recent 50-day war in Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 people, mostly Palestinians, could have been avoided.

"I say Hamas is a vicious organisation, it is cruel to its own people, all or most of its values I despise, and yet we shall not be able to achieve peace and stability without its support. It represents at least a third of the Palestinian people," he says.

"Every few years, Israel has found itself in a war that could have been prevented had both of us been more courageous and more generous with each other. We are unable now to be more generous and courageous with each other.

"For every family who lost one of their members, it's the end of their previous life. Such a waste of life, of energy. So much energy is invested in murder and killing."

To interview Grossman is to be part of a courageous and generous exchange of ideas. "Tell me about yourself," are his first words and he is eager to hear about life in Singapore. This is to be expected from a man who got his start in radio journalism and won global fame for The Yellow Wind (Hebrew, 1987; English, 1988), a non-fiction account of Palestinian outrage over the nation-state of Israel. It predicted the intifada, or popular uprising against Israeli rule.

His novels See Under: Love (1986) and The Book Of Intimate Grammar (1991), both about the burden placed on children by politics and history, were named in 2007 by the Israeli government as among the most important books to come out of the country.

A lover of words since he was a child, Grossman remembers holding kindergarten classmates spellbound with storytelling. But his biggest fans are perhaps his parents, who are both in their 80s - his mother is a housewife turned secretary and his father a retired garage worker.

During his visit to Singapore, a new book, A Horse Walks Into A Bar, was released in Jerusalem and he is expecting to hear from his father, who likes to go to bookstores and spread copies of his son's books around to ensure they are prominently displayed. "It's wonderful that, at his age, he still wants to take care of me," he says, laughing.

Writing is a way for Grossman "to understand or not to avoid the incomprehensible", whether it is the Israeli situation or the death of his son. Some of his anguish over the loss of Yuri is captured in the most recent of his works to be translated into English, this year's Falling Out Of Time, a play-poem about grieving parents. The central character externalises his sorrow by walking in endlessly increasing circles - just as how Grossman composes his books.

Yuri died in 2006 when a missile hit his tank during the Israeli offensive against Hizbollah forces in Lebanon.

"Falling Out Of Time is again an attempt to give words to a situation that has no words," he says, recalling the many condolence letters he received after Yuri's death, most bearing the words "we are speechless" or "we have no words".

"Even those from writers," he says.

"In the beginning, I myself had no words. In the beginning, I felt resentment towards words. They have failed to prepare me for this situation. After that comes a moment when silence is not enough. Every human being has the urge to call things by name.

"When something like that happens to me, to anyone, the feeling of being a victim is so crushing. But writing about it allows me not to be a victim, not to be stuck to the place catastrophe has nailed me to. There are other ways to define me.

"With every major thing in my life, I was able to understand it or not avoid it only through writing. It is the only way I know how to Be, with a capital B."

akshitan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on September 6, 2014.
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