Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
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To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen
Why This Book Should Win: David Grossman won the German Peace Prize this past year; this was one of the only translated novels to consistently show up on year-end “best-of” lists.
Today’s entry is from Monica Carter, BTBA panelist who also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”
A stunning achievement in war literature, David Grossman’s novel captures war and it’s destruction in the here and now better than any other novel of this epoch. It is a novel that does what war can’t: it explains, reflects, and examines the lives who are directly and indirectly swept into its torrents. It presents the reality surviving war without mawkish attempts at emotional manipulation, instead offering the stark reality of attempting to regain a sliver of a former self once the war has done its damage.
Grossman’s work has not received the attention he deserves from American readers, but this is the novel that showcases his skill as a writer, his themes of war and isolation, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and his powerful ability to write novels of meaning and substance. It’s difficult to find a bad review of this novel that is a testament to his appeal despite the controversial subject matter.
To the End of the Land is an intricate epic revolving around the love triangle of Ora, Ilan, and Avram. Alternating between present day and past memories, the reader witnesses Ora’s escape into her memories to avoid the reality of what she considers the inevitable—the death of her son Ofer who just sent her son off to war again. Grossman parallels her psychological journey of futility with her physical journey on the Israel Trail. Ora is a unique, complete voice, rich and multifaceted, that literature needs to hear.
Grossman focuses on Ora and Avram’s—her teenage lover and a POW survivor from the Egyptian war—walk to the Galilee which was the trip she had planned to take with Ofer. Her husband Ilan, who was the best friend of Avram, and her eldest son, Adam, have abandoned her to travel together to South America. She literally drags Avram with her, who is lost in a haze of drugs and depression, because she wants to tell him about Ofer. Avram is Ofer’s father, but Avram let him be raised as Ora and Ilan’s son because he was too emotionally and mentally ruined after brutal treatment at the hands of Egyptian guards. She knows that if she is not home she can avoid ever receiving any bad news from the authorities about Ofer. Grossman expertly shows the excruciating moments of not knowing and waiting to know if her son has died:
During this eternal moment, she, and faraway Ofer, and everything that occurs in the vast space between them, are all deciphered in a flash of knowledge, like a densely woven fabric, so that the very act of her standing by the kitchen table, and the fact that she stupidly continues to peel the potato—her fingers on the knife whiten now—and all her trivial, routine household movements, and all the innocent, ostensibly random fragments of reality around her, become nothing less than vital steps in a mysterious dance, a slow and solemn dance, whose unwitting partners are Ofer, and his friends preparing for battle, and the senior officers scanning the map of future battles, and the rows of tanks she saw on the outskirts of the meeting point, and the dozens of smaller vehicles that moved among the tanks, and the people in the villages and towns over there, the other ones, who would watch through drawn blinds as soldiers and tanks drove down their streets and alleys, and the quick-as-lightening boy who might hit Ofer tomorrow or the day after or perhaps even tonight, with a rock or a bullet or a rocket (strangely, the boy’s movement is the only thing that violates and complicates the slow heaviness of the entire dance), and the notifiers, who might be refreshing their procedures at the Jerusalem army offices right now . . . Everyone, everyone is part of this massive, all-encompassing process, and the people killed in the last terrorist attack are part of it too, unaware of their role: they are the casualties whose death will be avenged by the soldiers off on a new campaign.
Ora had promised him that she would not talk about Ofer to Avram because it was too difficult to him. Afraid that she will lose her memory of Ofer’s life, she begs Avram to listen and learn about who Ofer is. Gradually during the journey, Avram grows stronger and is able to engage in listening to Ora recount her memories of Ofer and brings their relationship to a deeper, more connected level.
This is not a novel that answers questions, or even asks them, its purpose is to expose the loss of war—the lives of those we lose and the pieces of life lost by those who survive. We know nothing good comes of war, but in the end in comes down to managing the pain of memory and trauma so that the war doesn’t continue within us once the fighting has stopped. To the End of the Land should win because the translation is faultless the message has the most to give us in the current war-driven atmosphere that offers no redemption. David Grossman also understand war better than many having lost his one of his sons while in war while finishing this novel. To convey his own grief through literature of the highest quality proves his dedication to life as art and to helping others cope with the tragedy of war.
Over the weekend, the National Book Critics Circle announced the list of finalists for this year’s awards, which consist of six categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, autobiography, biography, and criticism. You can find the complete list of finalists at the link above, but I just want to list the fiction finalists, since 40% of the list is literature in translation:
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from The Goon Squad (Knopf)
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (Farrar, Straus And Giroux)
David Grossman, To The End of The Land, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Knopf)
Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key, translated from the German by Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus And Giroux)
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber)
Interesting that there’s literally no overlap between this list and the National Book Awards shortlist . . . Not terribly surprised that Freedom is on here, but I really, really hope it doesn’t win.
In terms of the two translations, Dan Vitale reviewed both Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary for us earlier this year. Every since then (and after reading the almost over-the-top review in the New York Times), I’ve wanted to read this.
We never actually received a copy of To the End of the Land, but I’ve heard it’s pretty awesome . . . On a side-note, I had a sit-com like experience with David Grossman at the last Frankfurt Book Fair. When I was waiting to meet people for dinner, I crashed the fancy Hanser party, right during the time when Michael Kruger was introducing all the famous guests who were in the audience. I was circling around the back, trying to make myself invisible, when suddenly Kruger pointed right at me and said, “and we even have the recipient of the German Book Trade Peace Prize in the audience!” Everyone—truly everyone—turned to stare right through my guilty-looking self and applaud David Grossman, who was quite literally, right behind me . . . Anyway, hopefully Knopf will send us a review copy at some point . . .
And in terms of award announcements, we might have more about the NBCC awards later, but on Thursday, we’ll be announcing the 25-title fiction longlist for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Stay tuned!
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