Symposium Book Club – Conversation with David Matz About David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

This is part of the “virtual book club” discussing readings for the symposium at the University of Missouri on October 7:  Moving Negotiation Theory from the Tower of Babel Toward a World of Mutual Understanding.

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David Matz suggested a scene from the David Grossman book, To The End of the Land (English translation 2010).  Here’s David’s summary.

There is a brilliant four-page scene (pp  597-600 in the Vintage International paperback) which requires me to provide a lot of background.  It is worth the preparation time because the selection captures with pain and humor the raging inner voices of an Israeli mother, furious that her two wonderful sons have been “nationalized” by the government into the army and into a hostile, suspicious frame of mind.

The author contrasts her inner fury with her cheery-mom-voice, attempting to make normal with words and a salad what she feels as insanity on the brink.  I ask the students for their feelings about the mother, and what impact her inner and outer life has on the atmosphere of the kitchen and on the sons.  Can they identify occasions when they have played the mother’s role of conflicted inner and outer life, and can they identify occasions when someone else in their presence was playing the mother’s role?

John:  If I was a year older, I might have been sent to fight and die in Viet Nam.  Fortunately for me and my mother, President Nixon ended the draft the year I would have been called up.   When I was a teenager, my mother lived in dread that her only son would be killed in war.  As a solid liberal, she supported President Johnson’s domestic policies but she would scream at the TV every night when she saw him talk about The War.  We were spared the direct effect of the war on my family but I can easily imagine my mother’s terrified reaction if I had been sent to battle.  And even so, she still went through years of anxiety.

So when I read Grossman’s story about a mother named Ora seeing her young son in the army, Ofer, back home on leave, I could readily imagine the combination of relief, joy, anxiety, and fury that Ora felt.  She would have Ofer home safe for a few days before he would be sent back into danger for another three weeks.

He is assigned to guard checkpoints and describes his job as “standing there so the terrorist blows himself up on him and not on civilians.”  He doesn’t want to get out of his uniform as if it provides a kind of protection, even though it is stinky and dirty.  His gaze is “distracted and vacant,” but he comes to life when he hears a story on the radio of a 19-year-old soldier finding explosives in the pants of a 17-year-old Palestinian boy who was trying to smuggle them.

As Ora furiously chops the salad for dinner, she goes through a mental list of the Aras and even Israeli politicians who have “blood on their hands.”  She pounds the food as if it is “a hornet’s nest that must be destroyed.”

This scene provides a vivid account of the effects on Israeli soldiers and their families of the continuing cold (and sometimes hot) war with the Palestinians.  Whereas A Walk in the Woods and Thirteen Days in September focus on decisions by high government officials, To the End of the Land focuses on everyday people who feel the effects of such decisions.

Soldiers and other members of the armed forces not only risk physical injury and death but also grave emotional trauma based on what they see and do.  When enemy fighters disguise themselves as civilians, soldiers have to make excruciating split-second decisions about whether to refrain from harming civilians or risk being killed themselves.

One could also make the point about the agony of everyday people caught up in major conflicts by focusing on the travails of Palestinians who have no country of their own to protect them from the daily indignities of being second-class citizens subject to the harsh restrictions of Israeli rule.

One could imagine a parallel scene of a Palestinian mother preparing dinner with a similar set of emotions as her teen-aged son returns home safely without being harmed by Israeli soldiers or blown up by a bomb at a checkpoint.

So, David, what prompted you to suggest this reading and what would you like people in our symposium to take away from it?

David:  The scene in which Ora pounds out the vegetables and runs on endlessly and furiously listing Arab names and places is I think a scene of certifiable madness.  And I read the novel to be one that tries to cope with madness as an ordinary condition of life.

The point of it for me in teaching it in a negotiation class is the contrast between what her family sees and what we see, or she experiences.  A negotiation can be an intense experience: what do we know of the relevant inner life of the person opposite us?  If we could interview Ora, how does she understand her own inner life in that moment?  These seem to me to be important questions in becoming a good negotiator.

John:  Obviously, I missed the larger context of this scene as I hadn’t read everything preceding it so that we could have this exchange in a timely way.  Getting the full context is a good reason to read the whole book.

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