by Elias Khoury
Harvill Secker £17.99, 512 pages

In an interview given in 1998 shortly after the publication of the Arabic original of his novel Gate of the Sun, the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury declared that the book’s portrayal of Yunis, an ailing and ageing militant of the Palestinian fedayeen, is deliberately anti-heroic. The usual image of the Palestinian, he said, is one of “heroism and martyrdom”; it was a kind of “liberation”, therefore, to tell an altogether less consoling story - of “humiliation and interior defeat”.

Yunis’s story is a metonymy for that of the Palestinian people as a whole. It is told from beside his deathbed in a makeshift hospital in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, by Khaleel, a doctor whose medical credentials are somewhat dubious. The novel is narrated in the second person, as Khaleel comes to the comatose Yunis’s bedside on successive nights to “tell [him] stories”. There is an explicit structural parallel with The Thousand and One Nights, though in this case, by his own admission, Khaleel does not know “how to describe things”. Consequently, his narration is broken-backed and repetitive, moving in a few pages from Galilee in 1948 to Beirut in 1982 and back.

The effect of this is frequently disorientating; so much so that one is reminded of the consternation expressed by John Updike when he was asked some years ago to review a novel by the Arab writer Abdel-Rahman Munif for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike wrote, “that Mr Munif appears to be…insufficiently westernised to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel.” But here Khaleel is so assiduous in drawing the reader’s attention to his unreliability as a storyteller (”I jump from story to story”) that one can only conclude this is part of Khoury’s attempt to liberate Palestinians into a disenchanted and disabused understanding of their predicament by encouraging them to mistrust more straightforward narratives.

Yunis stays in Lebanon in 1982 rather than fleeing to Tunis with the rest of the Palestine Liberation Organisation leadership (he is by then a prominent member of Fatah). He is not granted a privileged perspective on the course of Palestinian history since the “Naqba” (the “catastrophe” of 1948). Instead, the tales of his exploits on early PLO missions in Galilee in the mid-1960s (fleeing from the Israelis on one of these, he holes up in the cave from which the novel takes its title in Arabic) and in Lebanon during the civil war are filtered through the distorting optic of Khaleel’s scepticism.

At one point, Khaleel tells Yunis that he has “become a bit of the past, a relic walking among the ghosts of memory”. He is describing his friend’s situation in Shatila, cut off from his former comrades who now enjoy sinecures in the new Palestinian Authority. But Khoury is also using him to make a larger point about the relationship between history and its actors, and to argue for the strategic and political merits of an undeluded sense of contingency. Khaleel ridicules the Israelis for declaring Jerusalem to be the “Eternal Capital of the Jewish State”, but his disdain applies to his compatriots as well: “Anyone who talks of eternity exits history, for eternity is history’s opposite.”

Khoury has long believed that the Arab novel “exits history” at its peril. He has criticised what he regards as an allegorical turn in fiction written in Arabic, identifying in the later work of the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, for instance, a shift from recognisably western novelistic modes to fabulist, symbolic forms deriving from antecedents in Middle Eastern folk and oral traditions. His complaint is that in distancing himself from the conventions of western realism, Mahfouz cuts his characters adrift. And though, in Gate of the Sun, he appropriates traditional storytelling forms, that borrowing is superficial - the unreliable narrator is a staple of modern European fiction.

One implication of Khoury’s work as a critic is that the Arab novel must appropriate western dress if it is to do significant historical and political work. He recognises that many western readers, like Updike perhaps, ignore the form of Arab fiction to read it for its (political) content. Gate of the Sun is likely to upset such reading habits, however, and not just because Khaleel’s tales evoke those of Scheherazade. Rather more unsettling, as much for western sympathisers as for the Palestinians themselves, is Khaleel’s readiness to abandon his belief in the “people’s war”; his debunking of his people’s habit of treating ignominious defeats as if they were victories; and his conviction that the sanguinary hymns of martyrdom “no longer have a meaning”.

Khoury’s most substantial debt is to the tradition of free and sceptical inquiry from which the novel, as a distinctively western form, sprang. At the same time, this is his most valuable bequest to the Palestinian cause.

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