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“Written with needles on the eyeballs of insight…”: Elias Khoury’s ‘The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol’

“He tried to explain to her that words must enclose meaning so that meaning can keep its meaning, and that in spoken Arabic they don’t say “I want to smoke a cigarette” but “I want to drink a cigarette” so the tobacco melts in the mouth and imparts to it the flavour of the plant.” (p. 74)

In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Edward Said attributes to him the following quote about Lebanon: “the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.” That could well be the blurb of Khoury’s latest novel, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol. Sinalcol is the story of Karim, who flees Lebanon soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. Karim wants to build a new world for himself in Montpellier, abandoning “his life among the bombs that had made gaps in his soul and his memory precisely so that he could begin a new one…” (p. 204), to “erase his memories and manufacture new ones” (p. 227).

But now, at the age of forty, with a successful dermatology practice, married to a Frenchwoman and with two daughters, Karim inexplicably accepts his brother’s invitation to return to Beirut and help set up a hospital during the temporary truce. And from the outset, it is clear to Karim that the hospital is no more than a reason of convenience. When he had left Lebanon, he had done so under the shadow of personal and political betrayal, “his life…  like a rubble of events and memories that it was beyond him by then to reorganize” (p. 204). The intervening years in a faraway country have only served to heighten his own sense of dislocation. Even as the Lebanese Civil War intensifies, his brother marries Hend, his lover, whom he had left behind when he fled, and his father dies. So now, after all these years, Karim is driven to return, to “repair his mirror and redraw his image” (p. 267), and to “find” once more an enigmatic individual lost to him in the northern-Lebanese city of Tripoli, who goes only by the name of “Sinalcol” (expectedly, we are left in uncertainty until the very end about whether Sinalcol exists at all, whether he’s alive or dead, or simply an invented alter ego of Karim’s).

Mirrors play a central role in Khoury’s novel, beginning with the title. At the heart of Sinalcol is the idea that just as an individual needs to construct a stable and defined image of herself for the sake of her personal and mental integrity, nations too must have their mirrors before them, for succour and reassurance. But mirrors break. In the middle of his increasingly fraught attempts to reconcile himself to his memories, to Beirut, and to his family and his former lover, Karim realises that civil war is “an assemblage of broken mirrors that run parallel to one another, making of the fragments images that reproduce each other but refuse to form a coherent whole” (p. 267). In a strange way, his own dislocation, and his inability to put his ideas “in a vessel that imposes form on them, adding to and subtracting from them” (p. 267) is “mirrored” by his nation’s inability to impose form and coherence upon its own past and present.

The book’s own form embodies this sense of dislocation. For old readers of Khoury, this style will be immediately familiar: there is no continuous narrative (although there is a lot more of it than in Little Mountain and Yalo, for instance!); characters – whether it is Karim’s lover Hend, her mother, his brother Nasim, or himself – are scattered and broken, fruitlessly trying to make sense and impose patterns upon themselves and their lives; events are told and retold, each time partially and from different perspectives and points of view, taking radically different hues and complexions, and sometimes even contradicting each other, so that rather than proceeding linearly, the book unravels itself like a complex web; and even at the end, one is not quite sure what exactly happened, and how it happened.

Nor is Sinalcol a simplistic morality tale, or a polemic. Although its dominant theme might be the individual’s – and nation’s – need for mirrors (“He didn’t tell her that a person cannot live without his mirrors...”  (p. 228), both Khoury and his characters are circumspect about what mirrors can do. In one of Khoury’s previous novels, Gate of the Sun, another character, Khaleel, fears being trapped in one version of history, akin to being trapped before one mirror, and becoming a prisoner of the image that one sees (in Gate of the Sun, it is the image of the Palestinian as a prisoner). In Sinalcol, in almost Kundera-esque terms, Karim resists converting reality into symbols (and it seems that Khoury uses the image and the symbol almost interchangeably), because “when we resort to turning things into symbols it liberates us from responsibility and makes of human experience an arena of random happenings, so that life becomes no more than a story” (p. 267). Hend, to whom this is said, does not understand.

Along with the dominant theme, as in most Khoury novels, there are a number of familiar sub-themes that the novel explores. The most important – as ever – is revolution, and the failure of the revolutionary imagination. In Gate of the Sun, it was about the institutionalisation – and stasis – of the Palestinian struggle. In Sinalcol, it is about the Islamisation of the Lebanese (and Palestinian) struggle. There is a quiet, almost despairing inevitability about how Karim sees his former (secular, communist) comrades transform their own characters – and the character of the struggle – into identities that are defined by Islam (I don’t want to go on being a fool because that way the sects will swallow us up, the Left will die, the Palestinian cause will become a religious cause, and we’ll lose everything” (p. 212)). But even there, Khoury is circumspect. One of the most important characters in the novel is a Palestinian fedayeen called Jamal, whom Karim is in love with (or believes himself to be), and who dies while hijacking an Israeli bus in Haifa. Soon after, Karim is asked by the leadership of the revolution to write an article about her, since his skill as a storyteller has not gone unnoticed (“he said your article on the crusaders was excellent because it was made up of stories…” (p. 211)) For this, they give him her memoirs. Events intervene, and the story is never written, but her memoirs remain with Karim. Many years later, when he returns to Beirut, Karim is asked – and then threatened – by the now-Islamicist leadership to hand over the memoirs. He resists, but even as he does so, he thinks to himself:

“… supposing they were modified and their contents played around with and her picture put on the cover with her hair – which, the last time he’d seen it, in her posters, had been flying in the wind – hidden from sight by an Islamic headscarf and a frown in place of her laughing eyes, would he then hand over her papers? What should he do with the papers? Should he leave them to turn yellow and disintegrate in the drawer? Did the Islamists, now the rising power, not have as much right to take control of their past as the Leftists had had in their day when they’d made a turbaned sheikh and warrior such as Izz el-Din Qassam an icon of the class struggle?” (p. 398)

I paused for a few moments here, thinking about how interesting it is that Karim uses ‘power’ and ‘right’ almost interchangeably, even though we would normally think of them as diametrically opposed to each other. In the unending struggle for control over narrative, Khoury seems to be telling us, there’s never a clear-cut moral answer. I wonder, though: is the claim that everyone acts amorally when it comes to representing the past (and that therefore, nobody is better than the other)? Or is it that everyone has a moral right to represent the past in a way that allows him or her to “take control” over it, to own it, as it were?

And then, of course, there is memory and language, meaning and homeland, and the limits of memory and language in the search for meaning and homeland. An instance of Karim’s continuing dislocation in France is his developing a stutter on hearing of Hend’s marriage to his brother, Nasim: “He’d started to feel that words were betraying him, that he couldn’t relax in the French language. Words, as his father used to say, are the land in which one feels at home” (p. 7). Karim’s wife – Bernadette – however, can never understand his obsession for homelands. And much like language, memory too, is dislocated in a fractured world: “because memory needs a place, time erases memories, and people only come across their memories in the crevices of places”, so that it begins to fail in its basic task – that is, “since it cannot stand inconsistencies… [to] draw… an immutable picture of things.” (p. 251)

And then there’s the sense of the thickness of language, of language almost as a physical object in the world, through a series of striking images: “He knew that people cover themselves with words for warmth…” (p. 239); “… words, like seeds, need ground to receive them, and Hend’s ears weren’t ready” (p. 239); “Muna hadn’t liked his comparisons or his talk of love, perhaps because she’d felt his words weren’t addressed to her, were a kind of delirious speech with which he filled the gaps in his soul” (p. 420); “What he had heard in Beirut and what he heard on that strange night was the sound of silence. Silence has a sound, it can even roar, but it is the roar of a whisper, the rattling of language, that has disintegrated and turned into letters whose wounds will not be knit” (p. 420); and then, at the very end, what could serve as the epitaph of the book, of Karim’s life story, of the Civil War, and of Khoury’s entire literary oeuvre: “He looked at the lines he’d written and found the words were piling up on top of one another, and that the language in which he’d written them no longer served to carry their meanings” (p. 422). By this time, the failure of language, the failure of a human life, and the failure of a nation have all become so entangled with each other, that there is little left to hold on to but a lingering, haunting sense of melancholy.

Other reviews: The Financial TimesThe National; Banipal; and an interview with Elias Khoury about the book.

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“And the room filled with pieces of shrapnel”: Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

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 cautiouslyclutching 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.

 

 

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