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Israeli novelist takes his best shots 'In the Dark'

In 1997 I lived in Tel Aviv, just blocks from Kikar Rabin or Yitzhok Rabin Square, the place where Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated Nov. 4, 1995. My walk to the bus stop on Ibn Gevirol Street took me invariably past the unassuming monument to Rabin -- a jumble of stones -- that was strewn with fresh flowers every day. I mention this because Kikar Rabin is the site at which Israeli novelist David Grossman gave an address, on Nov. 4, 2006, that concluded with this plea. "From the place where I stand now, I plead, I call upon anyone who is listening -- young people back from the war, who know that they are the ones who will be asked to pay the price of the next war, Jewish and Arab citizens, right and left: Stop for one moment. Look over the precipice, think how close we are to losing what we have created here. Ask yourselves if the time hasn't come to pull ourselves back, snap out of the paralysis, and demand for ourselves, finally, the life we deserve to live."

That speech, the "Yitzhok Rabin Memorial Rally," is reprinted in David Grossman's recent collection of essays, "Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics," and its tragic poignancy derives from the fact that Grossman gave it just months after his son Uri, a tank commander with the Israeli army, was killed in Lebanon during the war against Hezbollah. It was a war that Israel was not prepared to fight and learned quickly that it could not win swiftly and decisively in the manner of previous wars. And it also revealed to many Israelis the absence of leadership in their government, an absence for which only lately Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under indictment for corruption, paid with his resignation.

"One of the harshest outcomes of the recent war," declared Grossman in that same speech, "is our heightened sense that there is no king in Israel. That our leadership is hollow."

Statements like that and others that are scattered throughout "Writing in the Dark" might make the book sound like a gathering of political speeches, and indeed Grossman's politics are well known. They favor accommodation with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Readers who are unfamiliar with Grossman's fiction -- and he is the author of seven novels -- may know him for his most political book, "The Yellow Wind" in 1987, which found him traveling through Israel, interviewing Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, about their shared land and their attitudes.

What was revealed -- a Great Rift Valley of mutual antagonism and incomprehension -- was not cheering and did not promise reconciliation any time soon. If anything, its gloomy prognoses have been borne out with time. That was 21 years ago, and Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory remains as durable and calcified as the stones at the Rabin memorial.

But David Grossman is not a politician. Geopolitics and electoral issues do not captivate him. He is a humanist -- a word we don't encounter much these days -- and he is a trained, really self-trained, specialist in the human spirit, in all its shabbiness, nobility and embattlement.

The essays in "Writing in the Dark" are about his reading, his childhood absorption in the stories of Sholem Aleichem (at one time anathema in Israel), his devotion to language and dismay at the slogan-ridden discourse of political speech, his elevation of "the other" into a source of fascination and mystery, the cost to Israelis themselves of their garrison state and "the shrinking of the soul's surface area," and writing as his "grasping point in the world, which, as I grow older, seems more and more illusory and absurd, not truly graspable."

Without mentioning George Orwell, Grossman sounds a lot like him on the subject of politics and language. "The more hopeless the situation seems and the shallower the language becomes, the more public discourse dwindles, until all that remains are tired recriminations among the enemies or between political adversaries within the state. All that remains are the cliches we use to describe the enemy and ourselves -- the prejudices, the mythological anxieties, and crude generalizations with which we trap ourselves and ensnare our enemies." This will hit home with anyone who has watched the deterioration of our own American political language into pure sound byte and manipulation.

Grossman writes about his need as a writer to know "the other" and why we normally flee from such knowledge: "Perhaps it is an actual fear of the mysterious, nonverbal, unprocessed core, that which cannot be subjected to any social tampering, to any refinement, politeness, or tact: that which is instinctive, wild, and chaotic, not at all politically correct."

And yet for a writer the other is prime territory, that which makes us human, and writing for him is an "act of protest and defiance, and even rebellion, against this fear -- against the temptation to entrench myself, to set up an almost imperceptible barrier, one that is friendly and courteous, but very effective, between myself and others, and ultimately between myself and myself."

Ultimately Grossman turns to literature, both his reading and his writing, for emotional ballast in a world that keeps him continually off balance. "In this world . . . literature has no influential representatives in the centers of power, and I find it difficult to believe that literature can change it. But it can offer different ways to live in it. To live with an internal rhythm and an internal continuity that fulfill our emotional and spiritual needs far more than what is violently imposed upon us by the external systems."

David Grossman is the sanest of writers, and I do regard him as the Israeli Orwell. And like Orwell his sanity is not a cloistered virtue but one that has been tested by tragic events, again and again, and has survived the tests. A most able translation into English by Jessica Cohen presents him as a master of the colloquial. He is a writer for the world stage, and the world has much need of him.

Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

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Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics

By David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

Farrar, Straus, Giroux

131 pages, $18

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