An overwhelming stream of thoughts in early novel by Erasmus Prize winner David Grossman ★★★★☆

Figure Sarah-Yu Zeebroek

When King Willem-Alexander hands out the Erasmus prize to David Grossman in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, according to the jury, he will have a true humanist in front of him, ‘just like Erasmus’. The Israeli author shows us “man, naked and fallible, as divine as monstrous.” Continue!

It’s definitely a good winner. This year’s smart work prize of 150,000 euros has the theme ‘connections in a shared world’. And to connect in a divided world, that is exactly what Grossman (1954) has been doing in the forty years he has been writing.

He has worked tirelessly against polarization and for mutual understanding. His message has always been a message of reconciliation. Not least in his own country, where Israelis and Palestinians have been “trapped in our own petrified histories” for more than a century, as Grossman put it in a 2020 interview with de Volkskrant. “The two versions of history keep colliding with each other, to no avail.”

Ease the mind

The author has never hesitated to make a social statement in articles, interviews and speeches, but his fiction rarely deals directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An exception is the early novel The smile of the lamb, which has now been republished on the occasion of the Erasmus prize. In 1983, it was the first Hebrew novel to describe the occupation of the West Bank. Rereading it, it’s striking how busy Grossman was already breaking open stories, relaxing the mind.

David Grossman Photo Claudio Sforza

David GrossmanSculpture Claudio Sforza

The author weaves together four perspectives, without a compelling preference for one of the parties: the Israeli Uri comes into contact with the elderly Palestinian Hilmi through his work in the occupied territories, who tells him all sorts of fantastic stories about his life and his people. Uri’s wife Shosh, a youth therapist, is struggling in Tel Aviv with the death of one of her patients. A good friend of the couple, Katzman, once started his job as governor of the Palestinian city of Djoeni with good intentions. He quickly learns that ideals don’t get you far with the locals.

Grossman is not as sharp and focused as in many of his later books The smile of the lamb. But here, too, his literary talent and imagination are undisputed. The author has Hilmi use a spell in her stories that gives the status of every the story asks: kaan-ja-ma-kaan, ‘once upon a time and there was not’, instead of the unequivocal ‘once upon a time…’ The whole book turns out to be one big flow of thoughts and stories, spread over an eventful day in the lives of the characters. Essential questions arise in the overwhelming flow: what are lies, what is goodness, can we ever truly know the other? And then the framework gradually begins to change.

For Uri, the death of a donkey is the turning point. In Djoeni, someone threw stones at an Israeli patrol. The perpetrator got away, but a donkey was killed by the soldiers’ bullets. No one comes forward to plead guilty, so Katzman leaves the battered carcass in the street as punishment, ‘gut rolls swinging in the sand’. Over the next few days, Uri forces himself to check the alley, holding a handkerchief over his nose against the stench. The worst thing is that people get used to the rotting animal: women walk around it with their babies in their arms, a man sits right next to it to sift his flour. “And I stood and watched, for I had made up my mind to stay there until I understood.”

Never just one story

Although it seems impossible to ever truly understand anything or anyone, we must keep trying; this conviction permeates Grossman’s oeuvre. His stories are never open to one interpretation – kaan-ja-ma-kaan – and that is exactly their strength. There is never just one story, the author says again and again. Because he also promotes understanding of Governor Katzman; he too is given a history, fears and motives that make his position very plausible. Even if you disagree with him, you can understand why he does what he does.

It is bittersweet to think that the situation in Israel has not improved much since 1983: more tensions, still a precarious balance. The book has remained all the more relevant. Some passages could have been written yesterday. ‘The country, its inhabitants, the dream it was, it all seems to have been written by a grim, tortured Russian playwright,’ Grossman lets one of his Israeli characters sigh, ‘and how tragic that he casts us as occupiers of all places … and the murderers, who knows how many generations after us, will still carry this disease, and the gun from the first act, from the beginning of Zionism, is now firing at us…”

This character can be somewhat despondent, Grossman himself never was. In each interview he says something about his belief in the power of our imagination and in his own writing. Writing remains a hopeful act for him, even if it will not fundamentally change the world. But he changes his readers, say the jurors for the Erasmus prize: ‘The forgiving gaze with which he views his characters also shines on us.’ I have to totally agree with them.

David Grossman: The Lamb’s Smile. Translated from the Hebrew by Shulamith Bamberger. Cossee; 400 pages; €26.99.

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Image Cossee

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