Looking like Yaffa in ’48…
As Though She Were Sleeping, By Elias Khoury
Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Tuesday, 9 August 2011
Journeying towards Mount Ararat, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote of cultivating a sixth sense, “the sense of attraction to a mountain”. Writing about food, American novelist James Salter quoted Brillat-Savarin approvingly on his notion of a sixth sense, “physical desire”. The other five senses, he wrote, are optimised only in “sexual union”.
The Lebanese writer Elias Khoury belongs in such exalted company in literary terms. His new novel also pivots on mountains – in Lebanon – and appreciations of sexual union. Indeed, it was one of many books banned by the Mubarak regime for its explicitness. Khoury writes about the scent of words, which take on such immaterial qualities that writing itself works like a sixth sense in his fiction.
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This novel proceeds in ways very like his last, Yalo, but centres on Meelya Shaheen’s singular relationship to her world. Meelya, born in 1923, becomes the milky-skinned “Beirut beloved” of Mansour Hourani, a Palestinian, 15 years her senior, from Jaffa. We begin with their marriage in 1946, and strange honeymoon in the freezing mountains, before descending to Nazareth where Mansour is founding a business. The novel follows Meelya’s pregnancy to December 1947, when she gives birth in a soon to be ethnically-cleansed Jaffa.
Mansour is a lover and reciter of poetry. The novel luxuriates in the verse of al Mutanabbi, whom Mansour says “walked on words”. Meelya responds to a couplet by reversing its last words to encapsulate her character: “Your lot, in this life, of love/ Is as that of a phantom in your dreams.” While men are said to be empty, Meelya overflows with dreams so deep that death is described as one. A dream of this kind is where the novel takes place.
Mansour and Meelya first consummate their marriage in the mountains, sex characterised by Meelya’s dropping into sleep’s dreamy retreat. Mansour ‘takes’ her in this way, enjoying her involuntary responses but not her conscious refusal to recognise what happens. This is fueled by Meelya’s immersion in the rhetoric of miracles, an obsession which dulls the novel in its later stages.
Khoury’s style resembles the “world of circles” in which Meelya is said to live. Elements return in variations and narrative mass builds. Triggers for events often come at the end of pieces of yarn, as elements return in variations and narrative mass builds. Think of Cy Twombly’s iterative line drawings: when it works, Khoury’s fiction is as vivid and powerful as his capturings of human energy.
This novel, translated by Humphrey Davies, is richly contextualised by the Great Arab Revolt and Palestinian dispossession. Khoury is masterly in the early stages of the novel in the most demanding depths of Meelya’s dream-life and in sowing poetic potencies throughout. As the novel moves towards the texts and institutions of the miraculous, rhythmic exactitude slackens. I nodded when Mansour says “I get bored when I hear the same story… about the Messiah.”
However, Khoury’s style has substance. He writes that “the story that has ended we restore to life when we tell it”. This applies to literature as well as life, where Khoury has the unfolding Palestinian narrative in mind. So, while not as perfectly achieved as Yalo, Khoury’s new novel provides unusually stimulating pleasure.