How People Respond to the Conditional
Not a pacifist, but an advocate of negotiation: Lothar Müller explains why the Israeli author David Grossman is being awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
Seldom in the history of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade can it have been awarded to a recipient whose country of origin was further from peace than Israel, the homeland of the author David Grossman, is at present.
The German Publishers and Booksellers Association has specifically stated that it chose to honour him because he is "an active supporter of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians". Their choice of course entails the expectation that, at the prize-giving ceremony in Frankfurt's Paulskirche, David Grossman will repeat what he has been saying over and over again for years now, in newspaper articles and in interviews, regarding the only possible peaceful future for his country: that it will only be possible in the context of a two-state solution; that Israel will have to exchange land for peace and resettle more than 100,000 settlers; that Jerusalem, the city where Grossman was born, will be divided; and that Palestinian refugees will be able to return to Palestine.
Yes, it is true that David Grossman recently criticized the Israeli military action against the ships that tried (and failed) to break the blockade of Gaza, calling it "folly" and "a crime". However, he also made reference to declarations by some of the "peace activists" among the passengers, in which they spoke of destroying Israel. He merely added: "As far as we know, the expression of such opinions is not yet punishable by death."
The highest standards
This very cool and succinctly formulated sentence exemplifies a fundamental theme of David Grossman's political essays. He always measures Israel by the highest of standards: those of democracy, the constitutional state, and international law. Yet however severe he sometimes sounds in doing so, his criticism is always based on the conviction that this is the state in which he wants to live.
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem in 1954. His father immigrated as a child in 1936 to what was then Palestine; his mother was born there, to a family of Polish origin. The Holocaust in the part of the world from which his parents and grandparents had come is part of the essential background both to David Grossman's literary work and to his political journalism.
The boy in the novel "See Under: Love" (1986; English translation 1989), one of the many adolescents who appear in Grossman's books, is surrounded by adults who all bear tattoos on their arms. Often the child cannot understand what they are saying, but the words "Nazi beast" seems to hold all other words in thrall.
The way Grossman deals with this "Nazi beast" is absolutely characteristic of his style. He turns it into a linguistic game played by the child, who imagines keeping a beast like this in the cellar. In the imagination the beast becomes a monster; Grossman allows us to slip under its skin, to find out what it is like on the inside. He has the child grow up to become a writer who wants to sketch the silhouette of the Holocaust from the perspective of a future generation.
Wordplay is frequently an element of David Grossman's narrative work when he is writing about growing up and going out into the world, as in his great novel "To the End of the Land" (2008; the English translation is due for publication in September 2010). This book has now been singled out for praise in the statement explaining the decision to award Grossman the Peace Prize, which describes it as his "major work".
In this book, too, a child tests everything, both good and bad, that words can do. This child, a future soldier, takes shape through the recollections of his mother. As she tells the story of his growing up, she herself is running away, hiking through Galilee in northern Israel. The title of the novel, in both Hebrew and German, translates literally as "A Woman Flees from News", and the news from which she is fleeing is that of her son's death.
She has made sure she is out of reach in case someone tries to tell her that her son, who has volunteered for a special forces raid against Palestinian terrorists, has been killed. David Grossman leaves it unclear even at the end of the book whether or not this news ever arrives, but this is not a trick aimed at creating narrative tension.
For it precisely this that Grossman is interested in: the news in the conditional tense, and how people respond to this conditional, the thought that the news could arrive. As in all his novels, though, what immediately strikes the reader is that the narrator allows his characters to talk at length in direct speech, in both dialogue and monologues.
This artfully unregulated speech is – like the way he plays with words – perhaps the most important element linking David Grossman's literary work and his political convictions. It is able to accommodate both the desperate monologue of a soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a survivor talking into his radio while surrounded by his dead colleagues, as well as the fantasies of the mother figure, as when she is slicing an onion and imagines that she is cutting Arabs to pieces. The Palestinian taxi driver who brought her and her son to the collection point for the special anti-terrorist unit could be one of them.
Concern about the linguistic foundation of civilian society – civilian language – is a constant theme in all of David Grossman's essays, from his feature articles collected in "The Yellow Wind" (1987; English translation 1988) – reports written as the result of a journey to the West Bank – to the books "Death as a Way of Life: From Oslo to the Geneva Agreement" (2003) and "Writing in the Dark" (2005; English translation 2008).
However, Grossman's civilian language is not the language of pacifism. The Israel he wants to live in needs a strong army. What it is is a language in which there can be negotiation, a language in which it is also possible to talk to the enemy, Hamas.
Whatever he is writing, David Grossman writes as an advocate of this language. In a nutshell, his linguistic criticism is of the subordination of language to the interests of the state, even if the interests are those of his beloved, endangered state of Israel. It is his belief that Israel is endangered when it is nothing more than a state; when the conflict with the Palestinians renders it incapable of non-military speech, of speaking in civilian language.
The author has changed
The characters in the novel "To the End of the Land" provide the genealogical structure to Israel's wars, which are experienced by its young people again and again: first the 1967 Six Day War, then the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Intifadas, and so on up to the Lebanon War of 2006, in which David Grossman lost his son Uri – just hours before the end of the war, days after Grossman himself signed a statement calling for a ceasefire.
At that point the novel was not yet finished. When he was asked whether he had to make any changes as a result, Grossman answered: no, it was not the novel that changed, but its author.
This author is a regular, albeit secular, reader of the Bible. He reads it not as the revelation of God's word, but as the land registry of his people. A few years ago he revised the story of Samson in his book "Lion's Honey: The Myth of Samson" (2005; English translation 2006).
Like many great heroes, Samson had a weakness, like Achilles his heel and Siegfried his shoulder. Whoever cut off Samson's hair would deprive him of his power. Grossman read the Biblical text as Albert Camus once read the myth of Sisyphus: to defend the hero against the power of God. Grossman says that we should picture Samson as an unhappy man. His weakness was the strength imposed upon him, a strength to which he himself was not equal.
This reading was an over-simplification, but it was impossible to overlook the concern behind it. David Grossman wants nothing more than for Israel to exist forever. He fears nothing more than that it may perish. And because he is familiar with the ancient myths, part of this fear is that Israel may contribute to its own downfall by the manner in which it seeks to prevent it.
David Grossman is a deserving winner of the Peace Prize, and we congratulate him on the award.
© Süddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
Edited by Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de