CULTURE

David Grossman on life, writing and peacemaking

The questions were predictable and the writer’s opinions are well-known but there was something special about hearing Israeli writer David Grossman express them in person last night at the Athens Concert Hall. With a direct, engaging manner, he possesses an enviable ability to speak with both clarity and passion. He is an outspoken peace campaigner who has written widely on the issues that divide and bind Israelis and Palestinians and, almost inevitably, the discussion soon turned to politics. Grossman set out his hopes for the future, while warning those who wish to help that they must «expose themselves to the complexity of both sides.» But first, in conversation with journalist Nikos Bakounakis, the author visited some of the themes in his fiction. The creativity of jealousy A seasoned performer who knows how to win over his audience, he raised laughs with his comments on jealousy, the theme of his novella «Frenzy.» «I’m not a jealous person, but I explored jealousy for this book,» he said, claiming he practically has a doctorate on the subject. It is the creativity of jealousy that fascinates him: «A jealous person becomes a poet, a dramaturge, imagining what his or her partner is doing with a lover. It is so difficult for a jealous person to give up his fantasy. It becomes the creative focus of his life, the way to explore love, emotion and passion.» Creativity in various guises reappears in other books. The hero of «The Book of Intimate Grammar» refuses to grow up and learn the language of adults. «Aaron is very special child, an outsider,» explained Grossman. «He creates a secret hospital for sick words under his heart and performs rites to purify the words until he has the privilege of uttering them.» Grossman drew the parallel with writers, who «feel suffocated by cliches; they feel suffocated when they have to use cliches and the formulations of other people.» And so, he said, «the book is a ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ in the process of breaking away from using language that does not represent reality, that does not force us to confront reality.» Childhood is another favorite theme, and it is no coincidence that Grossman is also a successful author of books for children. «I’m fascinated by childhood. It is such an effort for children to decode the rules of family, of the world.» He told of putting his son to bed one night, telling him it was the shortest day of the year. It was only when his son burst into his parents’ bedroom at dawn, sweating furiously, to announce, «Well that’s over» that he realized what the child had been through. «We forget those primal experiences and sensations when it isn’t taken for granted that your family will stay with you, that the sun will rise again.» Tragically, Grossman lost one of his three children on August 12, 2006, in the fighting between Israel and Lebanon, just before the ceasefire. His son Uri, 20, a staff sergeant in an armored unit, was killed by an anti-tank missile in southern Lebanon. Grossman had initially supported Israel’s stance on Lebanon, but on August 10 he, together with writers Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, called on the government to agree to a ceasefire that would lead to negotiations. Asked by a member of the audience on Tuesday how he managed to face a blank page after that loss and the changes it wrought, Grossman explained, quietly and simply: «For three years, I had been writing a novel about how outer violence penetrates and crushes the most intimate fabric of family life. When Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua came to give me their condolences, I said I didn’t think I could save this book. They knew about the book, we’d talked about it. Now five months later, I think this novel saves me.» Jerusalem Though born in Jerusalem, Grossman finds the tension in what he calls «the most extremist city in all Israel» impossible to live in. It has echoes everywhere of the Bible, the Koran and the New Testament but after 3,000 years of hatred and mutual suspicion, it is not the «spiritual center of the world» that Grossman would like it to be. «When Israel is at peace with the Palestinians and the whole Arab world, I would like Jerusalem to live up to its spiritual dimension, which is not realized now.» And so, he said, «I go there once a week as a tourist; that’s bearable.» Grossman says frankly: «I cannot be a pacifist in the most violent place in the world, but I want to make the case for peace and dialogue.» He longs to see the Palestinians have their own sovereign state, and expresses compassion for the Israeli Palestinians: «How must it feel to be a citizen of a country that by definition is not you? It’s a Jewish state.» But, he added: «Don’t get me wrong, I want there to be a Jewish state, where Jews can express our culture. We are one of the most ancient peoples but we still don’t feel at home in the world. Jews are always represented as a metaphor, an allegory. It is easy for other peoples to project their nightmares onto us.» The only way to put a stop to that, he argued, «is to have settled borders and peace with our neighbors. Then we won’t have to shrink our souls so they will not come into contact with this harsh environment, this brutal reality. For both sides,» he said, «it has been such a price to pay. We’d have solved it decades ago if we’d been courageous and generous enough.» The solution? «We must learn to read reality through the eyes of the other and see, maybe, that they’re right. «We must put something into building the two societies. We have to learn a new language – the language of peace.» Grossman welcomes outside help, and warns those who offer it not to prejudge: «There’s no point in deciding these are the good guys, those are the bad guys; there are no good guys and bad guys here; they are so intertwined, mirroring each other’s faults and distortions. You must expose yourself to the just arguments of both sides.» The author was invited to Athens by the Israeli Embassy and Megaron Plus. A life in literature and politics David Grossman was born in Jerusalem in 1954. He studied philosophy and drama at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and worked at Israel Radio for many years. Grossman has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the prospects for peace. He has published six novels, numerous children’s books, two works on politics and a collection of essays, «Death as a Way of Life,» which was published by Bloomsbury in an English translation by Jessica Cohen in 2003 on the anniversary of the Oslo agreements. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and he has received numerous literary awards in Israel and abroad. Kastaniotis has published two of his books in Greek, «To paidi zig zag» (The Zig-Zag Kid), translated by Maggie Cohen (1999) and the two novellas in «I mnimi tou dermatos» (Lovers and Strangers), translated by Iakov Schiby (2006).