“Memories come back in a burst of images“, wrote Jean Genet about his time with the Palestinian fedayeen. Elias Khoury’s impressionistic, first-person, thinly-fictionalized account of the beginnings of the Lebanese Civil War is written in and through just such a burst of images. Little Mountain is a short novel, the first four chapters of which present the lived experience of the war – street-battles, battles in the church, wounds and death – and the last, a series of broken, scattered reminiscences in a Paris metro. What binds all of this together – what conveys meaning – is neither chronological narrative (time plays little to nor role in Little Mountain), nor character (at the end, we know almost as little about the narrator as we do in the beginning), but images.
For example: We ran cautiously, clutching rifles and dreams, writes the narrator in the beginning, – evocatively conveying, without conversation or action, through that simple image, the early idealism of the revolution, and the romance of violence. “Nothing remains in his hands save a wetness that recalls the rain.” “She laughed. It rang like a bow.” “They looked like the shadow of the old oil lantern one of them carried.” Each of these images, incredibly powerful in its context, does the work that events normally do: convey meanings (as I understood them), of loss, of love and of futility, all bound up with each other and with the war.
It is not, however, that Khoury has any wish to preserve or worship ideals. There are many striking passages about war in the book, especially the (thinly ironic) descriptions of battle in a church. And in these passages – that are at times strongly reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet in the Western Front, in their dispassion, detachment and seemingly unaffected attention to detail, Khoury mixes romance with dirt in a manner that the former cannot possibly survive. Consider, for instance:
“The commander came running. It looks like they’re trying to overrun the street. Get ready. I followed him. I stood at the end of a street leading to the main road where we used to listen for the movement of military vehicles. He took Talal to another street, Talal alone. You’ve got to get down on the ground, the position commander was saying. He lay down on the water, shivering, as it seeped into his body. The shelling was intensifying. We’ve got to hold our ground. Water mixed with blood. This is the glory of the revolution. You are the pride of the revolution. And the pride of the revolution will stand fast. I was holding my rifle tight and firing. The shots rang in my ears, I couldn’t see them. I gripped the hand grenade and threw it. Water splashed up and the shrapnel went flying. The water gasped loudly; this is the glory of the revolution. I was down on the ground. But they weren’t advancing. Nothing but an overpowering smell. The smell of rain and brackish water and burning gunpowder. The sound of shells. I couldn’t see anything ahead. But Talal stayed down on the ground, shooting, advancing to the main road. Nothing but shelling. The rain was stopping and masonry was beginning to crumble.”
In its choice of form (or formlessness), Khoury’s Little Mountain is similar to Latin American magic realism – in particular, it reminds one of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, that great Mexican novel. A reviewer writes of Pedro Paramo:
“The tenses switch back and forth, past to present and back again, sometime in the space of a single paragraph, until time itself becomes senseless. The stories begin to refract, shatter, and rebuild; pronouns multiply—I, he, she, you, stumbling over each other. Dialogue and thoughts are left unattributed. The perspectives shift from internal to external and back again.”
As a description of Little Mountain, this is accurate. In Pedro Paramo, the story is of the Mexican revolution and all its accompanying brutality, but that story is never told. We can dimly glimpse it, through a glass darkly, and we must reconstruct it in some incomplete way by trying to piece together the thousand little shards of events, metaphors, characters and images that lie scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Little Mountain is ostensibly about the Lebanese Civil War, but again, the Civil War, with its larger consequences, lurks in the background, just out of reach of our comprehension. “Do you see those clouds go by?” says the character Nazeeh. “You can reach up and touch them, but you can’t hold on to them.” This could be a description of Little Mountain.
And what is interesting is that just as Rulfo was writing back – or writing against – a literary milieu of social realism, recognising that he needed a new form to adequately convey meaning, so is Khoury. This point is made by Edward Said in the foreward to the book, where he compares Little Mountain, as well as the Rabelaisian qualities of Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist, to the writings of that grand old man of the Arab novel, Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz, Said argues, being Egyptian, was able to “able to depend on the vital integrity and even, cultural compactness of Egypt.” For a Palestinian writer like Habibi, on the other hand, and a Lebanese writer like Khoury writing in societies where:
“… national identity is threatened with extinction (the latter) or with daily dissolution (the former). In such societies the novel is both a risky and a highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies is replicable by Palestine and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration, since on a minute-by-minute basis social life for Lebanese and Palestinian writers is an enterprise with highly unpredictable results. Above all, form is an adventure, narrative both uncertain and meandering, character less a stable collection of traits than a linguistic device, as self-conscious as it is provisional and ironic… Khoury’s idea about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanon in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”
Thus, the cry that the narrator occurs: “It is temporary!“, is perhaps most fitting of all. Temporariness is a theme that runs through Palestinian writing. Not just temporariness in the sense of present instability (think of, for instance, Mourid Barghouti comparing life to a hotel room in I Saw Ramallah), but also for a hope – and a belief – that this situation, in which everything is temporary, is itself temporary, and will pass. “We can’t just live like that with no reference point whatsoever. I can’t live like this, scattered to the winds”, he has his narrator say at another point, before immediately realising the futility of that wish. And if that is the dominant theme of Little Mountain, then it ends fittingly as well. “When the chapters conclude,” Said writes, “they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”
In Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells an impossible story not by trying to fit events into a chronology, or by trying to impose the coherence of narrative form over reality and the order of sequence over life, but through scattered formlessness itself. And given the meaninglessness of the Civl War, this might be the most adequate – and maybe the only – way to tell this particular story.