FIRST THOUGHTS: A lament so clotted with rage and desperation

IN an unnamed place and unspecified time, a man and his wife exist in pieces following the death of their son.

Falling Out of Time

David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Vintage Books, £9.99; Kindle, £4.68

Uncertain where to turn, or how to move on from here, the man announces his intentions to walk, to go to the place where his son might be. So he sets out, moving in circles around his house and around the town and, for the purposes of this book soon earns the identifying moniker, ‘The Walking Man’.

It seems like a futile escapade, but he quickly draws others who can identify with his suffering, having all lost children of their own. All are distinguished by their ability to survive, if not quite to cope, even if it is just to exist in a kind of living hell state.

There’s a midwife, shocked into stammering by her own grief; and a broken-hearted cobbler. There’s an old maths teacher, who by night chalks simple equations on the sides of houses, shattered nearly to madness by his own loss, and by the shame of having adhered to the old “spare the rod, spoil the child” adage.

And there is a renowned writer, the Centaur, a man fused to his desk and surrounded by his dead son’s belongings, tormented by memories but blocked now and unable to work.

And charting all local behaviour and monologues, for posterity and apparently on the orders of a benevolent Duke, is the Town Chronicler. He moves like a spy among the people, noting everything. And yet all of this is a mask for his own torment, one that he has repressed to the point of such denial that he can only face it as something that didn’t and couldn’t possibly have happened.

Death, and its associated grief, proves a great leveller, spanning all classes. Indeed, even the Duke has known such anguish: “In August he died, and / when that month was over, I wondered: / How can I move / to September / while he remains / in August?”

Over the past 25 years, Israel’s David Grossman has been quietly but determinedly staking a credible claim as one of the world’s finest writers. A noted peace activist, and vociferous opponent of his country’s policy towards the Palestinians, novels like Someone to Run With and To the End of the Land have brought him international acclaim and a wide, disparate readership.

But his latest, Falling Out of Time, is something quite different, a book that defies easy categorisation. With tinges of Beckett, and a folkish surreality that evokes Under Milk Wood or some of the darkly Yiddish fairy-tales, it might be a novel, a play for voices or an extended piece of prose poetry, it might be some combination of the three, or it might very well stand as something else entirely.

Undeniably, though, it’s a lament so clotted with rage and desperation that it swings between choked impotence and rabid screams. And therein lies its power.

Inspired and haunted by the death of his own 20 year-old son, Uri, a soldier killed in action during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, this is the author’s courageous attempt at letting art make sense of death as both a notion and a reality, and to contemplate the damage wrought on those left behind.

The result is a strange, harrowing, deeply soulful and, in moments, quite unexpectedly beautiful book.

It is a purging, too, and because of this stands as a difficult read, one that can be absorbed quickly but which properly requires patience, perseverance and a considerable degree of reflection.

Those who can fully commit will surely find their effort more than worth the while.


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