And so we’re ushered into a multigenerational saga full of geopolitical brutality and family trauma, featuring a lively and formidable 90-year-old matriarch named Vera, with a ‘domineering tone a la Ben-Gurion’ and ‘a bladder like the late president. Hafez Assad. This “little woman with piercing green eyes” presides over the novel, making an indelible impression on all of its characters. Yet the more we feel like we know Vera, whether it’s through her narcissistic investment in her appearance – she always reapplies lipstick or wets the stray curl on her forehead – or through her portrayal of herself as having sacrificed her freedom and potentially her life even for her first husband, Milosz, a war hero and her great love, the more the reality she advances becomes questionable.
At the heart of “More Than I Love My Life”, translated by Jessica Cohen, is Vera’s imprisonment for nearly three years on the remote Yugoslav island of Goli Otok, one of Tito’s also known gulags. as the Adriatic Alcatraz, in the early to mid-1950s (period unclear). She was sent to the island because of a drastic and upsetting choice she felt compelled to make when questioned by Tito’s security guards. Officially set up as a “re-education camp”, Goli Otok is a merciless prison, run by vicious guards who reprimand, beat and rape inmates sentenced to senseless forced labor. Among the novel’s most captivating scenes are those in which Vera is forced to stand for days – 57 in all – on a mountain cliff under a scorching sun in order to provide shade for a sapling that the one of the commanders brought to the Island.
Grossman’s evocative gifts are in full force: “One hour, another hour. The sun moves over his body like a slow flamethrower. Head, shoulders, neck. Everything is on fire. Sweat is flowing. Her lips are cracked and bleeding. A cloud of flies buzzes above her. The bedbugs are well fattened with his blood. It doesn’t scratch. Don’t brush them anymore. Let them drink it all. This body is not his. Neither her nor her pains. She’s no longer human or animal or whatever. Since yesterday, since she figured out what she was doing here, her limbs and joints are rigid. His wooden legs. She walks as if she were on stilts.
“More Than I Love My Life” is about the burden of history that encroaches on individual lives and the family ghosts that wreak havoc in its wake. Following Vera’s decision, her young daughter, Nina, the child she had with Milosz, is taken from her. Although mother and daughter are eventually reunited, Nina never gets over her feeling of having been betrayed by Vera. Nina, in turn, will abandon her daughter, Gili, who rejects her mother with a virulence born of both bewilderment and self-hatred.