Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain

0005650_300In the foreword to the translation of Little Mountain, Edward Said argues that Khoury’s novel “in equal measure…derives and departs” from the Arabic novel, breaking with Naguib Mahfouz’s realist style. As Said puts it “from this perspective Khoury’s work bids Mahfouz an inevitable and yet profoundly respectful farewell.”

Said notes that in societies such as Palestine and Lebanon “the first a state that simply stopped existing in 1948, the second a country that began its public self-destruction in April 1975” – as opposed to the relative coherence and centrality of Egypt – the form of the novel changes:

In such societies the novel is both a risky and highly problematic form. Typically its subjects are urgently political and its concerns radically existential. Literature in stable societies…is only replicable by Palestinian and Lebanese writers by means of parody and exaggeration… 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.…in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.

Edward Said goes on to talk about Khoury compared to his generation and particularly Gamal Ghitany:

…Khoury is a mass of paradoxes, especially when compared with other Arab novelists of his generation. Like Ghitany he is, and has been for at least twelve years, a practicing journalist; at present he edits the weekly cultural page of the Leftist Beirut daily As-Safir. Unlike Ghitani  whose gifts for invention and sheer verbal bravura he shares – Khoury was from his early days an actively engaged militant, having group as a 1960s schoolboys in the turbulent world of Lebanese and Palestinian street politics. Some of the scenes of the city and mountain figting during the early (autumn 1975 and early 1976) days of the Lebanese Civil War described in Little Mountain are based on these experiences. Also unlike Ghitany, Khoury is a publishing-house editor, having worked for a leading Beirut publisher for a decade during which he established an impressive list of Arabic translations of major postmodern Third World classics (Fuentes, Marquez, Asturias etc).

Said points to novels which Khoury calls formless – Tawfik al-Hakim’s Diaries of a Country Lawyer, Taha Hussein’s Stream of Days, Gibran’s and Nuaimah’s writings and argues that “What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called postmodern: that combinatorial amalgam of different elements, principally autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, the whole highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.”

This easy identification of a post-Mahfouzian form of Arabic literature which is postmodern is problematic, as is taken up in Faysal Darraj’s Ma ba’da al hadatha fi alam bila hadatha (postmodernism in a world without modernism) which is quoted in The Experimental Arabic Novel:

Darraj comments: “Postmodernism is a European phenomenon which is not separated and cannot be separated from the historical context in which it is situated and this is something that non-Europeans do not have the capacity to repeat.”

He notes that while prevailing Arabic literary and cultural discourse focuses on modernism, the reality in which it lives actually resembles premodernity.  As a result while one can define modernism in the western sense as the awareness of living in a modern era, modernism in a non western sense can be defined conversely as the awareness of not living in a modern era.

Meyer has an interesting comparison between Arab and Latin American writers relating to this notion of being outside modernitiy and there has been a recent book, The Trials of Arab Modernity, by Tarik el-Ariss which goes into the subject.

But to return to Little Mountain, there are five loosely connected chapters in the novel, with the narrator’s voice shifting significantly between them.

The first two chapters are astonishingly visceral, almost entirely taken with the physical and the real. The last three are concerned with abstract thought and emotion, with some sections hardly referring to the war, as though it is only happening to the fighters and not the citizens.

In the first chapter, there is a vivid sense of being out of place which Karim Abuawad describes in an article on the novel:

It would be somewhat misleading…to say that Little Mountain is about the Lebanese Civil War. A more accurate way to describe it would be that it centers on the experience, told from hindsight, of an individual who gets implicated in this most horrible of wars. The novel tells the story (or to put it more accurately, the ramblings) of a fighter who has chosen to join the ranks of the fiddayyin, a group comprised of Palestinians and their supporters which fought in the civil war, despite the fact that this group fought against the Christian militias which were supposed to protect the interests of the minority to which the narrator belongs. Right from the outset, we come to understand the novel’s main narrator as someone out of place, as someone who positions himself outside of the locality to which he was assigned by virtue of being born in a certain neighborhood and to a certain family.

This sense of being positioned outside the society is highlighted by a passage that repeats with slight variation several times in the opening chapter, which “illustrates the hyper-episodic narrativity, or the utter inexistence of causality, in this novel.”

Five men came, jumping out of a military-like jeep. Carrying automatic rifles, they surround the house…Their leader ask about me.
–He’s gone out.
–Where did he go?
…They enter. They search for me in the house. I wasn’t there. They found a book with Abdel-Nasser on the back cover. I wasn’t there. They scattered the papers and overturned the furniture. They cursed the Palestinians. They ripped my bed. They insulted my mother and this corrupt generation. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.

As Said notes, this repetition is central to the novel:

as if the narrator needed reiteration to prove to himself that improbable things actually did take place. Repetition is also as the narrator says the search for order – to go over matters sufficiently to find if possible the underlying pattern, the rules and protocols according to which the civil war, most dreaded of all social calamities is being fought. Repetition permits lyricism, those metaphorical flights by which the sheer horror of what takes place (Ever since the Mongols…we’ve been dying like flies. Dying without thinking. Dying of disease, of bilharzia, of the plague…without any consciousness, without dignity, without anything.) is swiftly seen and recorded and then falls back into indistinct anonymity.

The first chapter, called Little Mountain, introduces the narrator’s home and is one of the most lyrical through the repetitions, but also because of the quality of the prose, slipping between first and second person, “You stand alone amid the flood of lights that blinds you and robs you of your memory. You go looking for your house alone, memoryless” (8), and has the repeated question “Is the mountain slipping? I walk its side streets, looking for my childhood” (10). The sense of collapse suggested by this repeated question is echoed in a crescendo which suggests a coming disaster:

1956: the tripartite attack on Egypt. We were at the poor, small neighborhood school. We were little. We’d listen to Sawt al-Arab. We went home and rejoiced when Egypt won.

1958: barricades in the neighborhood. Somber faces. The Muslims want to kill us. My mother didn’t believe it. She always said that’s crazy. They’re very much like us.

The tall buildings have become barricades. Things have changed. The gathering clamor. Things have changed. (11)

In Chapter Two, The Church, the narrative remains relatively coherent, divided into cinematic scenes, describing the experience of a young fighter and his conversations with his comrades and with Father Marcel.

–  What’s the difference between war and civil war?

In the interstices between one shot and the next, Salem would find the time to ask such questions. He’d ask the questions and not wait for the answer. He’d always say it’s not the answer that’s important. All answers are the same. The thing is to ask the questions.

Father Marcel provokes the fighters by talking about civilization:

At first I wanted to be a teacher in one of the Catholic schools. The teaching led me to God. You see I came to religion by way of civilization and not as is usual with you, civilization being introduced to your countries by way of religion.

Talal blew the smoke from his cigarette into the air, his big eyes looking sceptically at the priest. But Father, you didn’t introduce civilization into our countries. You’re just colonizers, coming in with the ten commandments. Giving us the commandments and taking the land. (33)

When one of the fighters dies, his comrades muse about the idea of nationalism and causes and the symbol of the Palestinian flag.

-We’ll drape him in the Palestinian flag.

– This isn’t the Palestinian flag. Palestine isn’t a country for it to have a flag. Palestine is a condition. Every Arab is a Palestinian. Every poor man who carries a gun is a Palestinian. Palestine is the condition of us all.

Palestine used to be a map but has become the sea.

Chapter 3 is called The Last Option. It begins with a poem by Mohammad Shbaro, and throughout the chapter scenes which describe the trauma interspersed with conversation with a woman with “brown skin and laughing African boy’s cropped hair” and scenes by the beach.

In Chapter 4, The Stairs, the narrator is concerned with his family, his children and his wife, “This modern woman, who when I married her I thought I was marrying the 20th century is worse than my mother” (87) and the chapter ends with them running for the shelter:

I don’t know how I woke up. The building was shaking. Smoke and voices. My wife screamed. I screamed. The kids everywhere…the whole world’s tenants on the building stairs, rushing for the shelter. I carried my little daughter. The two boys were in front of me and my wife was holding the bawling half naked baby…they looked like ghosts, running with their matches and candles (111-2)

In the final Chapter, The Kings Square, there are two symbolic conversations. The first is with Bergis Nohra, who joined the Foreign Legion. The narrator meets him in Paris, where he begins “ranting on feverishly, rapturously about war” and the connection between tunnels and war:

…Look at the metro. Look at these tunnels. What it means is that civil war is inevitable. A civil war in the passages and tunnels of the metro, it’d be mythical. Every expectation would be confounded and the earth would revert to its entrails. Something amazing!

…I’ve been on the metro a great deal and have visited a lot of cities but I’ve never uncovered the relationship between metros and tyunnels and between tunnels and civil war….In Milan, demonstrators overturned the metro cars and the police had to close off the subway entrances…in Damascus there are no such things as metro tunnels but Qassioun is being dug up and destroyed so that they can turn it into pretty – or ugly – villas. That is the point. Cities above ground and cities under ground. After Ottoman Beirut, they started looking for Roman Beirut under the rubble.

In contrast to in Bergis, the narrator is in a more musing, philsophical mood:

This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.

This chapter picks up on the theme of civilization which runs throughout the novel, in the highly surreal and symbolist passage on the square:

I saw neither time-honored nor modern civilization. Only forms of things bending….there…an ancient Egyptian obelisk. For during Napolean’s Egyptian campaign, historians, writers and philosphers accompanied the soldiers. The soldiers looted and men of learning studied Egyptian antiquity. Then men of learning discovered they too could loot. So they started stealing the priceless objects, the pharaonic mummies. They stole despite the pharaoh’s curse, they weren’t afraid. And now there’s this pure white obelisk standing in the middle of one of the most beaitful squares in the world. We went up to it: there were all sorts of pictures and signatures on it. Egyptian birds flitting from place to place, innumerable scenes, looking at them, you can see men and women in ancient Egyptian costumes, words flying from their mouths and nestling in the stone, between one man another, a woman carrying a picture of the pharaoh-god or her newborn child who would emerge as the builder of the tombs.

-Look, the most beautiful obelisk in the world standing witness to the continuity of civilizations. Civilizations piling on one another like silt at the mouth of a river. The most magnificent ancient civilization standing at the center of the most magnificent modern civilization.

I couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of those words. What I do know is that they stuck the boot into our heads in the name of something very similar. Don’t you read the papers? She exclaimed. They brought the mummy of Ramses II all the way from Egypt so it could be treated in Paris. Fungus had started to grow on his forehead and bacteria to eat away his right hand. That’s why they admitted him here at the hospital laboratory. He’ll be treated and then he’ll go back to his country, duly honored and revered. Yet another sign of the continuity between civilizations. (131-2)

The narrator suddenly imagines himself as the mummy:

…why can’t this woman see my face and the fungus growing on it, and my hand with the bacteria eating it away? Why can she only civilizations – as though civilizations were sacks of potatoes, all mixed up together, so that you can’t differentiate between them? (134)

Soon after, the novel ends, abruptly, on the note that books are far away, and ropes may be more useful and civilization is a distant thought.

As Said notes,

Little Mountain replicates in its own special brand of formlessness some of Khoury’s life, his early years in Ashrafiyyeh (Christian East Beirut) his exile from it for having taken a stand with the nationalist (Muslim and Palestinian forces) coalition, subsequent military campaigns during the latter part of 1975 – in downtown Beirut and the eastern mountains of Lebanon – and finally an exilic encounter with a friend in Paris. The work’s five chapters thus exfoliate outward from the family house in Ashrafiyyeh, to which neither Khoury nor the narrator can return given the irreversible dynamics of the Lebanese Civil Wars, and when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite. For indeed Khoury’s prescience in this work of 1977 was to have forecast a worsening of the situation in which Lebanon’s modern(ist) history was terminated and from which a string of almost unimaginable disasters (the massacres, the Syrian and Israeli interventions, the current political impasse with partition already in place) have followed…In Khoury’s writing therefore we get an extraordinary sensation of informality persuaded gently and not always successfully through the channels of narrative. Thus the story of an unravelling society is put before us as the narrator is forced to leave home, fights through the streets of the Beirut and up into the mountains, experiences the death of comrades and of love, ends up accosted by a disturbed veteran in the corridors and on the platform of the paris metro. The startling originality of little mountain is its avoidance of the melodramatic and the conventional,

Finally, Said returns to his title which is “After Mahfouz” as he compares Khoury to Mahfouz “whose Flaubertian dedication to letters has followed a more or less modernist trajectory” while “Khoury’s ideas about literature and society are of a piece with the often bewilderingly fragmented realities of Lebanese in which, he says in one of his essays, the past is discredited, the future completely uncertain, the present unknowable.”

Khoury’s work embodies the very actuality of lebanon’s predicament, so unlike Egypt’s majestic stability as delivered in Mahfouz’s fiction…Novels have always been tied to national states but in the Arab world the modern state has been derived from the experience of colonialism, imposed from above and handed down rather than earned through the travails of independence. It is no indictment of Mahfouz’s enormous achievement to say that of the opportunities offered the Arab writer during the twentieth century his has been conventional in the honorable sense: he took novel from Europe and fashioned it according to Egypt’s Muslim and Arab identity, quarrelling and arguing with the Egyptian state but finally always and already its citizen. Khoury’s achievement is at the other end of the scale…Khoury along with Mahmud darwish, is an artist giving voice to rooted exiles and trapped refugees to dissolving boundaries and changing identities to radical demands and new languages.

3 comments

  1. mlynxqualey

    I find this Darraj’s idea, as you relate it, troublesome. I also find the word “modern” loaded and troublesome, particularly when it is posited as a singular. But beyond that, (Arab) authors live in many different realities, sectors, and traditions, and they are influenced not only by the world(s) they physically live in but by the literary tradition in which they steep themselves.

    More importantly, now I need to go re-read Little Mountain.

    Like

    • tasnim

      I agree it is troublesome in that it might be rather sweeping, but I also find the notion of “postmodern Arabic literature” problematic in transplanting a western typology and grafting it onto the Arab world – obviously Arab authors can be and are influenced by writers identified as postmodern, but using the word postmodern as a catch-all phrase for a certain type of writing is too easy I think, especially in a context where the whole notion of modernity and what it means needs to be examined more carefully.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Elias Khoury, Israe, Yarmouk e a porta do inferno | My East-West

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: