The Journey of Little Gandhi

0005681_300Elias Khoury’s The Journey of Little Gandhi begins with the death of the hero in the first chapter, following which the storyteller, Alice, opens each of her stories in the remaining five chapters with a lament for his death.

Alice said he died…Alice said she took him to the cemetry and she saw the people without faces…she spoke to them and didn’t get any response then she left them and went on her way. That’s how the story ended (7).

“Alice said he died” becomes a recurring phrase through the book, the starting off point for Gandhi’s story to be recounted to the narrator-author by an old woman who has seen many things in her life and embeds those stories,  most of which could stand as stories by themselves, within the frame of Gandhi’s journey, which the life story of Abd Al-Karim, a shoe shine in a Beirut ravaged by civil war, a city that is itself on a journey:

When I tell it, I don’t tell anything. I tell about it and I don’t quench my thirst and I go on my journey to it and don’t find it. I find words that dangle like a rope, I climb the rope and I slip and when I tumble to the ground, I see the walls collapse and the city migrate 191

As Samira Aghacy notes in her article on this novel:

 the narrator deduces that, although Gandhi did not travel, the city did: “You stay where you are and it travels. Instead of you traveling, the city travels,”(46) and he comes to the conclusion that, far from being the Switzerland of the East-as Beirut used to be called-Beirut today is like any other Third World city.

The journey is an obvious metaphor for writing as exploration and discovery. It is Gandhi’s journey in the sense that it tells and retells his life from his birth in Mashta Hasan to his death when the Israelis reach Beirut on September 15, 1982, however this journey is also a way to tell other’s stories as well as the historical events happening around them. As Ghandour points out, “the novel’s structure with its embedded stories parallels the Lebanese war with its seemingly unresolved events.” Ghandour identifies two principals in the novel:

The first principal frame for this novel is the Lebanese civil war and the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, specifically its invasion of Beirut. This war atmosphere presents the main background of this novel for it grants or denies the characters life and death… the second frame…represents the narrator-author as a character in the novel. This frame intertwines with the third frame represented by Alice, who tells the stories to the narrator till she disappears during the events of 1984.

As Alice’s embedding of stories within others suggests, the novel draws attention to the act of narrating. Samira Aghacy quotes an interview with al-Nidda where Khoury asserts: “The journey is Gandhi’s, on the one hand, and mine is his on the other. He discovers the world and I discover the world through what Alice says about him.”

As Sabah Ghandour writes in the Foreword to the translation by Paula Haydar:

Hayden White differentiates between two types of discourse. The first is a discourse that narrates: “it adopts openly a perspective on the world and reports it.” The second is a discourse that narrativizes: “it feigns to make the world speak itself…as a story.” Elias Khoury’s The Journey, feigns to make its fictional world speak for itself, it narrates itself as a story. By situating himself inside his narrative the narrator-author accomplishes two goals: first, to dismiss the idea of the god-like author who knows everything, second, to invite us, the readers, to participate in the act of reading/writing, in the discovery of Gandhi’s and other embedded journeys.

The novel is divided into seven chapters of varying lengths.

The first chapter is five pages long, the second chapter is slightly more than double than at eleven pages, the third chapter is twenty-four pages long…the chapters begin to shrink till we reach the last one, which is only two pages long…The beginning and ending of the novel, telling of the death of Little Gandhi require not an enormous space but rather an abridged one.

The story of how Gandhi came to be called Gandhi recurs in various versions throughout the novel:

He forgot why they named him Gandhi for he didn’t know who this man called Gandhi was. When the tall American professor told him Gandhi was a leader of India and was a hero, Little Gandhi exploded with concealed laughter. Even since he began working at Salim Abu Ayoun’s restaurant he didn’t dare laugh, his laugh had become something like a yawn. 9

It was Mr Davis who gave him that name. He said he resembled Gandhi and all the faculty from the American University started coming to take a look at him, and his name became Gandhi. If you ask him he prefers people to call him Abu Husn but no one calls him that…then he accepted the name when they added on the “Little.” 21

For Samira Aghacy “It is obvious that the narrator intends to magnify the role of the little man and to make a hero or martyr out of him.” Perhaps the name suggests glorification but it also functions to render Gandhi an everyman figure, a mirror, a man who is more than one man, “a man who lived and died like millions of men on the face of this spinning earth.”

Poor Gandhi or poor Abd al-Karim, I don’t know why he had two names as if he were more than one man. He was like a mirror. When he died I felt as though the mirror had smashed to the ground and it truly has fallen (17)

This obviously relates to the epigraph of the novel, which is these lines by Ibn Arabi:

A face is only one, yet when it’s seen

in many mirrors, multiplies itself

Besides the Sufi interpretation of this verse, it gestures to the notion of reflecting reality from various perspectives in a parallel to the narrative structure of the novel which begins with “only one” story but ends up multiplying itself until it contains many more names and faces. On the first page, the narrator says  “I’m telling the story and it hasn’t even ended yet. And the story is nothing but names. When I found out their names, I found out the story.” On the same page, a long list of names is enumerated, and each of those names have a story which we are told through Alice, moving from one story to another, all of them interconnected in some way.

“If Kamal al-Askary hadn’t died then Alice wouldn’t have met up with Gandhi and if she hadn’t met Gandhi then he wouldn’t have told her this story. And if Gandhi hadn’t died, Alice wouldn’t have told me the story. And if Alice hadn’t disappeared or died then I wouldn’t be writing that I am writing now.” (14)

An implicit contrast is set up in the novel between these named individuals and the anonymous figures in masks which the narrator uses in connection with the war:

the war became masks on people’s faces. People became masks without eyes, walking like zombies through the city streets. 13

The Phalangists with their masks were in the city…from that day on the masks became commonplace. Everyone wore masks and Beirut died that day, couldn’t walk anymore, armed men came out like madmen and bullets whizzed over the heads of the innocent. That day the war turned against the people and the bodies strewn in the streets swelled before anyone had a chance to taken them to the cemetry 179-80

The connection between masks, anonymity, and death is explicit: “Everyone wore masks and Beirut died that day.” Gandhi’s death connects the names and the masks as his death is foretold and foreshadowed throughout the novel. For example, we are told he was the only shoe shiner who hung his box from his neck: “It’s like a noose” the Reverend Amin told him once (21). In a reflection on the shoes he shines and the methods of shining them, Gandhi muses

The true work was in the black shoe, when you could actually smell the leather, the chevreux style or the box style. The box could be transformed into a mirror and the city transformed into a shoe.

When Gandhi would finish with the shoes that were sent to him, he’d stand them up against the wall and use them to watch the reflection of people’s feet as they walked by. When the customer would come to get his shoes, Gandhi would ask him to look carefully and see his face in them.

This interweaving of mirrors and shoes and faces is brought together in the scene of his death which comes on the day of the invasion, which tellingly identifies the soldiers as “black shoes”:

…Gandhi died. He died when Beirut fell beneath the black shoes. He didn’t know how he died…and so the bullets didn’t hurt him and death came lightly like a short dream that doesn’t end.

The narrator is implicated in this since he “has borrowed his authority from death. In other words, it is natural history to which his stories refer back.” He questions his role in the death of all the names he begins the story with:

Alice vanished and they began dying right before my eyes. Was it I who was killing them or am I simply a narrator telling their stories? 2

She promised she’d take me to visit them all. But she didn’t come. When i decided to meet them, she disappeared and when I went to look for her, I didn’t find the grave. She left me without letting me know anything. She took all the knowledge and left 190

Alice didn’t fool me. She lied to me a lot. She knew I wanted to hear stories for the sake of hearing stories. She let me hear what I wanted, and when I wanted to stop hearing the stories, I discovered that the stories died beneath my pen.

He is doubtful even about “telling their stories”, admitting “even the death of Abd al-Karim who opens the story is uncertain” (2).

I’m the one narrating and writing. I want to travel with those people but I find myself alone in a dark corner. I search for the rhymth of a journey that took place a few years ago and feel like I’m digging in a deep well. I’m not digging the well opens its mouth and pulls me in…I discovered a well that was swallowing me up. 5

Even when the narrator reports a certain incident, his language is filled with questionings and ambiguities and recognition of a lack of coherence: “I met Abd al-Karim by coincidence, but her, I don’t know how I met her. Abd al-Karim nicknamed Little Gandhi was a shoe shiner. He never shined my shoes, but everyone had told me about him. I ran into him once and we talked for a long time. But her I don’t know, maybe another coincidence.” The narrator-author asks and investigates but:

I keep finding holes in the story. All stories are full of holes. We no longer know how to tell stories…the story of Little Gandhi ended. The journey ended and life ended. 7

One review I have comes across recently describes Elias Khoury as a writer who “fills in the blank spaces on the Middle Eastern map in our Western heads.” However this idea that no story can be told fully, that all stories are full of holes is a constant in all Khoury’s novels. As Ghandour points out:

when his novel Little Mountain appeaerd in french in 1987 Khoury expresed his concern about a certain type of reader who tends to reduce any translated text to a mere historical or anthropolical document of the source culture. such reductionist readings usually treat the text as a transparent cipher of political and ideological postitions…Khoury’s writing problematizes such readings and his novels resist being reduced to sociological studies. His writign refuses in Hayden White’s words, “incorporation into conventionalized notions of “reality,” “truth” or “possibility.”

This is particularly the case in this novel where as Sabry Hafez says, “language has abandoned its declamatory phrases.” For example, when Abu Abbas tells the story of the nun that walked on water in Ayn al-Mraysi, and is accused of being a swindler, he responds:

“I am a swinder. That’s what they want. They want information…there’s…a need for a histoRy, they all want to know the history. What is history? Miracles and strange happenings…”But you’re lying to them””If I lie, they believe me, If I don’t lie, they don’t belive me. But I don’t lie, I say what I’ve heard and what I’ve heard is true because I heard it, right? (146, 138)

Language is not only caught up in the inevitable falsification of telling stories, but comically inverted from being a means of comuncation to being an obstacle even when the same language is being spoken: “God grant you a long life Reverend. You all speak English. I don’t understand a world. What’s his name starts speaking Arabic like he’s speaking English. I don’t understand a word.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

“What do you mean by blessed, Reverend?” Gandhi asked.

“Blessed means how lucky they are. How lucky you are, Gandhi because you saw the green horse. No one but John the Baptist has ever seen that horse.”

“Send my best to John the Baptist, your highness.”

Gandhi’s inability to understand reverend Amin’s rhetorical language is part of his representation, not so much as a hero but as an anti-heroic fool, a Goha figure, as is exemplfied in the story of the dog and Mr Davis the American philosophy professor at the American university of Beirut.

For some time, Gandhi depends on this dog for his livelihood, taking leftovers from the canteen to feed the dog:

He’d take the leftovers put then in the bag and then take them to Mr Davis’ house. And from this bag he got his idea. He started bringing lots of bags with him. He’d give one bag to Davis’s dog and take the rest to his house in Nabaa. There in front of his house he opened a restaurant. Gandi lived off of Mr Davis’s dog. 11

This ends when the dog is run over by a car. “The American professor bent over his dog who was in the throes of death in the middle of the streets and the driver who’d run over him with his car got out of the car and spat” (38).

Before this incident, Davis is described in the novel as someone who loves the East:

The Reverend Amin believed that america was the heart of civilization and progress and freedom and Mr Davis detested New York where he’d lived and taught in its universities and loved the East and spices and Arabs. 38

However after the car’s driver  says “its only a dog,” Davis feels that

His mission in Lebanon had failed. He said he came and became a real Arab, he loved the people, loved Beirut, loved fried fish and cauliflower and tahini sauce, he loved them and became one of them. But it was impossible. The East is barbaric…If not for India and the real Gandhi, the East would’ve remained barbaric.” 7

For Gandhi this was a disaster – “he was prepared for anyone’s death but not the dog’s”
(175) and he buys another dog for Mr Davis but no one wants him and in the end he gives the dog poison in his milk. This story of Mr Davis’ dog like many others is split up and given to us piecemeal, the temporality of the narrative fragmented not chronological as Ghandour notes, “for the past is constantly diffused in the present and the present invariably reaches out for the past to interrogate it.”

One of the historical periods that this text problematizes is the one preceding the war going back to the beginning of this century: “The Turks left and then came the French and under the French everything changed. The Jesuits took over eveything and we no longer knew in which country we were living. One minute the state of Beirut, the next Greater Lebanon, the next I don’t know what.” The second of these temporalities refers to the time of war itself and its development into many “Lebanese wars.” While these different temporalities highlight the various ideological, political and social issues, they also function as connectors and references to the various embedded strories.

There are other forms in which the past reaches forward, such as the nostalgia of Abd al-Hakim:

Abd al-Hakim the Egyptian was nostalgic for the old days in this country for this hotel used to be the meeting place of the upper crust of society. It was an oasis, almost like an oasis. Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs would come and stay one night there…Now what was happening? The hotel had gone to ruins and he couln’t leave it. If he left it he’d lose the fortune he’d put into building it stone by stone. He’d stay as he would say because the war would end and things would go back to the way they were 181

The last chapter begins, “That’s how the story ended.” After Alice vanishes, the narrator searches for some facts for her stories, but finds nothing tangible:

The nun said I was asking about imaginary names, she didn’t know any Alice or any Reverend and she doubted my mental componence 189

In the end he has to give up and acknowledge what he has suspected: “This is how endings are. A rattling in the throat, voices calling out to come to prayer and faint moaning covering the streets of an abandoned city” (87).

Gandhi died and Alice became a maid at the Salonica Hotel. The Reverend Amin became senile and ended up in a nursing home. The American went back to his country and Malku immigrated to Sweden and Spiro died trying to give his name to his grandsom. A long journey because its short….his name was not Gandhi. Abd al-Karim, son of Husn, son of Abd al-Karim son of Husn, son of Abd al-Karim, son of Husn, and all the way back to Noah. They named him Gandhi and he didnt know why. But he knew why died, he knew the bullets weren’t aimed at him but rather at the heart of a city that destroyed itself because it was like Gandhi, it was trying to make a story of its name.

And the story is a game of names. “and he taught Adam all the names.” when we knew the names, the story began and when the names were extinguished, the story began 193-4

Resources

History, religion and the construction of subjectivity in Elias Khoury’s Rihlat Ghandi al Saghir

Elias Khoury’s The Journey of Little Gandhi: Fiction and Ideology

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