David Grossman is a remarkable man. In this collection of six essays you get virtually no indication of the anger that surely must be there, at observing the stupidity of the endless violence that has spanned his entire life. Instead, there is a calm, rationale voice, a "light unto nations" if you will, that consistently and logically says that we (and the book was originally published in Hebrew, so his main audience is the nation of Israel) need to recognize that endless conflict is not in our best interest, is damaging to our soul and values, and that there are alternatives available. In one of the best essays that have been highlighted by other reviewers, his speech in Paris in 2004, which is entitled "Contemplations of Peace" he clearly identifies one of the central problems: "The government of Israel have showered hundreds of millions of dollars on settlements and settlers in the past decades. What is known as the `settlement enterprise' is the largest and most wasteful national project Israel has undertaken since its inception. A massive mechanism of propaganda, enticement and persuasion--ideological, religious, and national--was launched by all the governments of Israel, left and right, to impel Israelis to move to the Occupied Territories en masse. Scandalously excessive financial incentives were offered. But still, after almost forty years, fewer than 250,000 Israelis live in the settlements, and the vast majority of them are children who were born there."
The book is a short one, only 130 pages, and there have already been a couple of excellent reviews posted. But such is the richness, and density of his essays, that I think there is still much that can be said without being repetitive. Differences provide for the viability of horse races and stock markets. My colleague to my north, R. M. Peterson, and I differ somewhat on this book, perhaps only by nuance, since we both give it 5-stars. But my rating does not resort to "trick math," since I believe Grossman's best essay is the second: "The Desire to Be Gisella," and I am strongly impressed by the first as well. In the second essay Grossman describes being on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the news hour includes a report on his book, "See Under: Love." In the report they describe an extra pedal that Uncle Shimmik had installed on a sewing machine that Gisella uses. Grossman, who has written the story, cannot remember why he had the fictional character install the extra pedal! He says: "I was on edge for the rest of the journey." On arriving home, he re-reads his own story, and realizes, yes, I gave her the extra pedal because she was short. As a writer, he was able to enter his creation's life, and realize that because she was short, she would need an extra pedal at the sewing machine, something he subsequently forgot. In a word, he had empathy with his character, and this is a primary thought he has for "his characters," empathy for "the other"; or as he expresses it at the end of this essay: "And then, sometimes, we can also grasp--in a way we never previously allowed ourselves to--that this mythological, menacing and demonic enemy is no more than an amalgamation of people who are as frightened, tormented and despondent as we are. This comprehension, to me, is the essential beginning of any process of sobriety and reconciliation."
Words matter. A central Grossman theme as a writer. Do we call them "settlers," as the American media does, or "colonists" as the French media does, in referring to the Jewish inhabitants of the occupied West Bank (the last three words themselves are "loaded".) Grossman has a wonderful dissection of the following news report, from his days as a newscaster on Kol Israel radio news, in his first essay, "Books That Have Read Me": "A local youth was killed during disturbances in the Territories."
Anger? Well, he is only human, so he does have a bit of that as well. Consider in his final essay he says: "This may also explain the general lack of response to the heavy blow against democracy dealt by the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as a senior minister--the appointment of a known pyromaniac to run the national fire brigade."
Now that America is also adopting an ideology of endless war, Grossman's book is an excellent 5-star read for those Americans who seek an alternative from "cursing the darkness," and kudos to Jessica Cohen for an excellent translation.