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It can't go on, it goes on

Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo, David Grossman, Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 188 pp., $22

May 25, 2003|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker, is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" and "Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel."

Since Sept. 11, it has often seemed as if the whole world is in the grips of an Israeli-style madness, a kind of mental illness in which not just a person but a whole national entity boldly flings itself into the one series of actions that most goes against its long-range interests. This makes David Grossman's new collection of essays, "Death as a Way of Life," a peculiarly, one might say eerily, useful and enlightening book to read right now, not just for the usual crowd of fanatics who are chronically obsessed with the Arab-Israeli conflict but for a far more general audience. In it, one of Israel's great contemporary writers shows us what lies ahead for the Western world if force is the only weapon we choose to wield.

As its title would indicate, "Death as a Way of Life" is a primer in the logic of the absurd. Has there ever been a conflict more amenable to the laws of Beckett, the unreason of Kafka, than that between the Israelis and the Palestinians? The locked, motionless quality of the desperate battle, the unerring ability of both parties to plunge into realms of self-destruction, the dark, dark, darkness of it all (especially the uniquely inexorable tool of suicide bombing as well as the killings of babies), the seeming endlessness and no vision of the future -- what struggle could be more conventionally modern, even postmodern? What clash more existential on both sides? Who are -- behind all the rhetoric and theatrics -- better contemporary analogues of Vladimir and Estragon than Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat? It's as if Grossman were writing from a Middle Eastern Alcatraz, writing out of sheer exhaustion and despondency: Perhaps someone somewhere will someday see the message in the bottle.

In a series of short essays written as events unfolded, the new book addresses the 10 years of Arab-Israeli conflict that followed the signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn. There is progress in the history Grossman sketches out: progress from hope to despair, from possibility to futility, from the rational to the absurd. Reading the book from cover to cover is something akin to watching Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat come away from the Historic Handshake only to find that what they had hidden in their grips was not an olive branch but knives, bombs, tanks and every other tool of betrayal and death.

Like Amos Oz, Grossman is a particularly perceptive writer when he turns his novelist's eye from fiction to the real world of Israel. We should all thank heaven that the world has such writers in it, because as artists and essayists, they are allowed beyond the usual boundaries of journalism, and outside these borders, art and observation and emotion can interact, giving these writers the ability to get to the human core.

Explaining the rifts in an Israeli society torn by controversy over the peace process, Grossman gives us an anecdote, a snapshot, that exposes the situation in all its complexity. In the days after Rabin's assassination by a right-wing Israeli zealot, Grossman sees a man "get out of his car and quickly peel off it a black-and-red bumper sticker inscribed 'Rabin is a murderer.' " The incident takes place in the green secrecy of the Jerusalem Forest.

"What will this man say to his children today?" Grossman asks. "How will he explain to them why he put the bumper sticker on his car and why he tore it off today?" But it is not just privately observed moments Grossman is capable of encapsulating for us. He takes events seen by the world and shows us their meaning. Surely all who pay even the slightest attention to events in the Middle East will recall the day when a boy named Muhammad al-Durrah was killed in an ugly cross-fire between the two sides in Gaza.

"[F]or the last year and a half," Grossman wrote in October 2000, "[Ehud] Barak and Arafat have not stopped talking about the need to make peace, for the sake of the children. But they are apparently speaking of some abstract peace, of figurative children.

"A twelve-year-old boy now lies between them, a boy with a name and a face, a face contorted with fear. A very tangible dead boy.

"Were Barak and Arafat braver, really brave, this boy might still be alive.... Who knows how many more innocent people will die in the days to come, until the two sides understand that the look that was in the eyes of that boy before he died will be the look we all have.... "

It's too bad that there is not more commentary like this coming out of areas in crisis. Grossman's sympathetic and perceptive writing goes to the very heart of the most complicated dilemmas in the Arab-Israeli crisis. He confronts the bloodletting squarely and doesn't let anyone get away with it.

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