It brings to mind the Shepard Tone, an auditory illusion used in film soundtracks to create a palpable disquiet. It occurs when layers of the same scale sequence are played at the same time; the highest layer decrescendos, the middle pitch maintains a consistent volume, and the bottom frequency increases in loudness. Played simultaneously, it manipulates the brain into believing that it is hearing an infinitely ascending tension.
In what appears to be the most original writing style I have encountered in a while, Hanne Ørstavik seems to have invented a literary equivalent of the Shepard Tone, camouflaged in a narrative that demands complete attention.
A village in northern Norway. A mother and son. The frost and the night are tangible.
It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.
It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction.
“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”
Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.
“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”
In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”
This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.
_ _ _
In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.
The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.
I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.
These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.
Gate of the Sun is a steady stream of sorrow flowing for five hundred and thirty one pages.
I can stop there.
But I feel that I have to warn you about those indelible and heartrending parts where a crying baby is suffocated to death to keep him silent so that he would not endanger an entire group; about the pregnant wife of a fedayeen who had to claim she was an immoral woman to protect her husband and keep his whereabouts secret; or of that woman who did not weep with her eyes but with everything inside her… and what if I told you that this novel was inspired by real dialogues between Palestinian exiles and Khoury? I am not sure how my heart was able to bear it.
At this point, you would probably begin to think that this book undoubtedly demonizes Israel. But therein lies the beauty of this magnum opus — despite all the pain it recounts — it does not.
In an interview conducted by an Israeli publication, Khoury articulated, “When I was working on this book, I discovered that the ‘other’ is the mirror of the I. And given that I am writing about half a century of Palestinian experience, it is impossible to read this experience otherwise than in the mirror of the Israeli ‘other.’ Therefore, when I was writing this novel, I put a lot of effort into trying to take apart not only the Palestinian stereotype but also the Israeli stereotype as it appears in Arab literature and especially in the Palestinian literature… The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the ‘other,’ who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”
I think this is important because if this attitude can be applied to one of the most divisive issues in the world, then we can certainly attempt this in our own personal or national conflicts.
We also see this thought being explored in the novel through Khalil, the narrator: “This secret is the mirror. I know no one will agree with me, and they’ll say I talk like this because I’m afraid, but it’s not true. If you’re afraid, you don’t say your enemy is your mirror, you run away from him.”
“But let’s look in the mirror… I confess I’m scared. I’m scared of a history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death. We mustn’t see ourselves only in their mirror, for they’re prisoners of one story, as though the story had abbreviated and ossified them.”
That last sentence hints at the Holocaust, the forceful catalyst — forgive this terrible oversimplification — that led to the Palestinian exodus. Not blind to the faults of the Palestinians, it also asks this difficult question, “Are we imitating our enemies, or are they imitating their executioners?”
With the anticipated announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 7, several people have asked about my projected winner. Aside from thinking myself unqualified to make such a projection, I answered by saying that I’m probably the wrong person to ask because my picks are unlikely to be chosen, because they are not safe choices — Elias Khoury or Nawal El-Saadawi, but she passed away earlier this year, so that leaves Khoury.
But I hope people will not have to wait for Khoury to be awarded the Nobel before they start reading him. After each novel, the Lebanese always leave me asking incredulously, “How was it possible to write a novel that way?!” And yet, Gate of the Sun seems to be the pinnacle of all the Lebanese works I’ve encountered.
Khoury draws the drapes from an incredible window to a way of seeing and storytelling unknown to most of us.
As Though She Were Sleeping
August 14, 2021
Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a book like this. It reads like a long dream where visions of the present blend into the past and future. The first chapter is 176 pages long. Can one allow the flow of dreams to be interrupted by brief chapters?
It is 1947, Lebanese Milia marries Palestinian Mansour, and though it is not explicitly stated in the book, nor can the term “Partition Plan” be found in its pages, we know that this was the turbulent year in the Middle East when a particular land would be divided between Jews and Arabs. It is through this time that Milia responds to life, her marriage, the religious and political climate, her family history… as though she were sleeping.
Elias Khoury, a pillar of modern Lebanese literature, writes this novel with a magic realism so convincing and so natural that it never feels contrived. He creates a sublime balance of literary elements with a distinct sensuality. Nobody enters a dreamlike state and makes sense of it immediately. So, too, with a novel like this, but if you read through, it will be worth it.
On the surface this is a magnificent ode to the Arabic language and Arabic poetry, and that is what people keep saying about this book. And it is! I indulged in those sumptuous passages about poetry and words!
But this is what I have not heard being said about this book but which I felt deeply: Milia is Lebanon. Mansour is Palestine. This is a seldom told story of how the relationship affected Lebanon. To know how it ends, one must either read the book, or know history.
This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.
The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.
Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”
Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…