Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lebanon: At War in the Ancient Garden

Little Mountain by Elias Khoury

What is it you were doing in the ancient garden three hundred years ago.

“Responsibility is what awaits outside the Eden of creativity,” writes South African author, Nadine Gordimer, in her well-known essay ‘The Essential Gesture.’ “I should never have dreamt that this most solitary and deeply marvelous of secrets—the urge to make with words—would become a vocation for which the world, and that life-time lodger, conscionable self-awareness, would claim the right to call me and my kind to account. The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read, and comes to realize that he is answerable.”

The idea—still deeply rooted—that the best literature is Olympian in nature, politically and emotionally detached, that it is fashioned in a manner somehow independent of the messy human lives that comprise it, is not and has never been true. This is not to say that dogma has a place in art; it does not. Yet to believe, as Flaubert tried so very hard to believe “that great art is scientific and impersonal,” involving “neither hate, nor pity, nor anger” is to deny the nature of art itself. No novel, no poem, no play has ever been written but that it is covered with fingerprints, dirty human prints. That is the particular brilliance of the novel as form, that it is simultaneously a site of political and personal accountability (for the author, for the characters themselves) and—as Milan Kundera puts it—“a realm where moral judgment [itself] is suspended.” Impossible? Perhaps, yet it is a dream to which so many of the world’s best writers aspire.

Not least among them is the Lebanese author, Elias Khoury, who smudges everything he writes with prints. What interests him and often characterizes his fiction are the seemingly formless works of such pioneering Arab writers as Tawfik al-Hakim and Taha Hussein, a style of writing that Edward Said describes in his introduction as “that combinatorial amalgam of different elements, principally autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, the whole highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.” In other words, everything but the kitchen sink—and sometimes that as well, whatever Khoury finds at hand, whatever he finds useful in telling his tale. His novel Little Mountain is a case in point. Told in a poetic, often disjointed style complete with maps and footnotes and what he calls “scenes” rather than chapters, brief tableaux one might find in a Hollywood script, Khoury attempts to chronicle, to fathom, the country’s calamitous civil war (Arabic: الحرب الأهلية اللبنانية), a sectarian struggle for supremacy that lasted from 1975 to 1990.  How else to describe such murder and destruction, such cultural, religious, and political splintering, but with fragments, with bits?     
In at least one respect, the story of modern Lebanon, as sketched here in this novel, is not unlike the story of modern Israel. Created originally by the French in 1943 as a home and safe-haven for Maronite Christians, Lebanon has been under siege ever since, a struggle finally brought to a head in the bloody, protracted, almost infinitely convoluted Civil War. This was no straightforward struggle between Christians and Muslims, between East and West, but was positively Byzantine in its tangle of loyalties and aims. Apart from the ‘legal’ Lebanese Army, which quickly split into a Muslim-led and Christian-led troops, there were no less than twenty different armed Arab factions, not to mention the various Christian, Druze, Armenian, Kurdish, communist, and Marxist-Leninist militias, each fighting for their own bit of turf. Add to that the intervention of Syria, Israel, the United Nations, and the U.S., add an approximate death toll of 120,000 and the fact that more than half of the nation’s population is now living in exile, and it is nothing less than a miracle that Lebanon, as a country, still exists.    

Yet, as with all war stories, Little Mountain is only partly about war. It is of course really about people, a tale of memory, identity, and exile, the story of three young men stumbling their way through a landscape made surreal by violence, madness, and grief. It is a “plaintive, yearning prose poem of a novel,”* a grim, if significant transformation of the war and its consequences—for Khoury himself a brave and essential gesture.  

Elias Khoury, Lebanese novelist, playwright, critic, and public intellectual, is the author of eleven novels, including Gate of the Sun and The Journey of Little Gandhi.  He is currently professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, and editor in chief of the literary supplement of Beirut’s newspaper, An-Nahar.  He lives in New York and Beirut. (Picador)

+lead image called ‘The Boy From Cerrado’ by Guilherme Oliveira
*from a review in L’Est Républicain.

**, Civil War

Peter Adam Nash

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