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David Grossman: ‘I know literature is not as strong as a bullet’

The Israeli novelist David Grossman laughs when I say his publisher made me promise I wouldn’t ask him about the political situation in his country. Grossman, who won the International Booker Prize for A Horse Walks into a Bar (2014), has been a consistent critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and a vocal campaigner for peace.

It is his responsibility to talk, he says, “about the dangers of the occupation, the price it takes from the Palestinians and ourselves, the way it corrupts and imperils our frail democracy”.

Speaking over Zoom from his home in Mevaseret Zion near Jerusalem, Grossman feels cautiously optimistic, following the departure of Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose 12-year premiership ended in June.

“The inflammatory climate that came with Netanyahu has gone,” says Grossman, 67. “The new government is focused on solving problems in a rational way. Maybe soon President Biden will put on the table his plan to solve the problem between us and the Palestinians. Let’s see how the Israeli government acts then.”

Book cover for More Than I Love My Life, a photo of a woman scattered with bright white spots

Grossman spent the pandemic at home with his wife Michal, a child psychologist, near his elder son and grandchildren. Israel is in its fourth wave of Covid-19 and Grossman is about to get his third vaccination.

“The sudden silence” of lockdown life was not conducive to writing, but Jessica Cohen’s English translation of his novel More Than I Love My Life, which he completed before the pandemic, will be published this month and he recently started working on a new project.

“There’s a moment when I’m not sure what a story is about but I can feel it coming to life,” he says, eyes beaming behind his glasses. “I always wanted to be a writer. My kindergarten teacher used to tell me to sit on a rock before my classmates and tell stories. Without royalties. Unbelievable.”

He finished writing his first novel, The Smile of the Lamb (1983), while serving in the Israeli army in the first war with Lebanon in 1982. He remembers reading at night, overlooking the battlefield.

“I sat there without a helmet, reading Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary . . . above lines of Israeli and Syrian tanks. I’m an atheist but reading there was almost a secular prayer. I thought: ‘I will be protected.’ If somebody else said that I would think they were crazy.”

I didn’t think I could save the novel I was writing then. Yehoshua said: ‘The book will save you’

His fiction and non-fiction, which has been translated from Hebrew into 36 languages, explores the impact of political events on individuals, something brought home to Grossman in the most tragic way in 2006, when his 20-year-old son Uri, a tank commander doing his national service in the Israel Defense Forces, was killed in Lebanon.

At the time, he was writing a novel “about a woman who refuses to receive the notification from the army that her son has been killed. She runs away because she understands that it takes two to make bad news — one to deliver it and one to receive it.”

Grossman came up with the idea when his son joined the military, he says, because he “wanted to envelop Uri as much as I could. I don’t mean to protect him, because I know literature is not as strong as a bullet. It is 15 years this month since he fell and I still cannot understand this loss. Even so, I remember telling my friends, the writers Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, that I didn’t think I could save the novel I was writing then. Yehoshua said: ‘The book will save you.’ After the shiva [seven days of mourning] I went back to work. I couldn’t abandon the story and the characters.” To the End of the Land (2008) has become one of the great antiwar novels of the 21st century.

Grossman says his characters should not be seen as symbolic. “I remember when I was promoting a book with a character who has a broken leg, an Italian journalist asked: ‘Is this person a metaphor for the broken Zionist dream?’ If you make somebody a symbol, you deny their humanity. In politics, too, if you do not look at the individuals affected, you will not resolve problems.”

Portrait of a man looking stern in front of bookcases
David Grossman’s latest novel is ‘More Than I Love My Life’ © Michal Chelbin for the FT

More Than I Love My Life examines the way violence can, as its film-maker narrator says, “poison our family for three generations”. It is a profound testament to the emotional power of fiction and shows why some critics regard Grossman as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The inspiration for the story was given to him more than 20 years ago by his late friend, Eva Panic Nahir, on whose life it is based.

“Eva was an elderly Croatian woman living in Israel when she phoned to scold me about an article I wrote in Haaretz,” Grossman says. “She told me her life story, how she was imprisoned for three years in the 1950s on the island of Goli Otok, where opponents of the Yugoslavian dictator Tito were tormented and sometimes murdered. We became close and she asked if I was going to write about her. I said: ‘I will tell your story but I am not a documentary maker. I need to imagine you.’”

Panic Nahir died in 2015, aged 96, but her daughter, whose complicated relationship with her mother is central to the novel’s meditations on families and how history can force people to make impossible choices, has given the book her approval. “Writing this novel taught me to see how these two women found a way to look the past straight in the eye and love each other,” says Grossman.

Inevitably, the conversation circles back to where we started and Grossman, who advocates the two-state solution for peace in the Middle East, says: “After a century of bloodshed, we need a climate where Israelis and Palestinians can learn to respect each other . . . I don’t see it happening in the near future but perhaps in the distant future. The Palestinians must have their home and we must have our home. Otherwise, Israel will just be a fortress.”

More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Jonathan Cape £18.99, 288 pages

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