Margaret Obank reviews

Dear Mr Kawabata

by Rashid al-Daif

translated by Paul Starkey

Quartet Books, 1999

165pp, pbk, £8. ISBN 0-7043-8113-3

Rashid al-Daif explores a new form of fiction: A long letter to Yasunari Kawabata

Rashid al-Daif has chosen a unique and compelling way in which to record the anguish of a young man who almost died after being injured in a bomb blast, growing up in a Lebanon at war within itself and trying to make sense of the society he was born into.

The title of the novel, Dear Mr Kawabata, begins a long letter which Rashid, the narrator and central character, is writing to Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese prodigious short story writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, who committed suicide in 1972 at the age of 73. Dear Mr Kawabata is being published as part of the MÈmoires de la MÈditerrannÈe publishing project of the European Cultural Foundation. The project supports the publication of contemporary Arabic literature translated into a total of nine European languages with the aim of promoting better understanding of Arab society and culture today. Daif’s novel is being published almost simultaneously in French, Dutch, Swedish English, German., Polish, Spanish, Catalan and Italian. Paul Starkey of Durham University is to be congratulated for his fine and flowing English translation.

Elements of surrealism

The novel is autobiographical in the sense that it centres on events in which Rashid al-Daif either participated in, or heard about or lived through, but to label it that almost detracts from its power: it is an original novel, with elements of surrealism, simple journalistic reporting, philosophical and linguistic debate, of humour and of horror, and with an engaging characterisation of the young Rashid made possible by the constant appeals he makes to Kawabata to listen to the points he is making and advise him.

Of course, Kawabata is not in a position to advise him, or even receive the letter, but the letter ends as any normal letter might, “With best wishes”, and a PS hoping that he will have the time to reply. In this high-tech world of immediate communication, which is the background to Rashid al-Daif’s latest novel, Learning English, no communication is actually possible between Rashid and Mr Kawabata. The letter will not physically be either sent or received.

Rashid al-Daif writes simply, directly and eloquently, and as Margaret Drabble says in her Foreword, “he uses language with precision . . . This is not a florid or rhetorical work”. The power of his language and his images are enthused with his intense urge through the young Rashid to question everything.

Letter-writer Rashid has passion, dreams and youthful impatience at anything ‘old’; he must discuss his thoughts with someone, he has to analyse the strange events that unfold, events in which time, place and material being exist sometimes as in their real-life relationship, and sometimes with no connection between them at all. Above all, he has to explain his relationship to Rashid al-Daif – he is the author’s “mirror”; to words and language – “We took words for our mounts, confident that we were riding history!”; and to Mr Kawabata – “Can you imagine, Mr Kawabata, how things might turn out, if one man could die in place of another?”.

Haunted by nightmares

Death and dying and disintegration surround Rashid; he is haunted by nightmares that he calls dreams, like the one at the beginning of the civil war, in 1975, when he realised “that my mouth was full of ants, that my lips were stitched together like a deep wound sewn up with strong thread”, and like the dream that kept coming back to him of a half-statue standing in the desert, out of which “soldiers emerged from the two ears of the statue, small as one’s little finger, carrying machine-guns, which they let off in all directions, firing on everything indiscriminately”.

In writing to Kawabata, he gets attracted by one subject and enthusiastically opens up, but then pulls himself back, saying to Mr Kawabata: “I honestly wonder, Mr Kawabata, where is the sense in these words. I wonder whether it is possible for a man not to strive to give his tongue free rein”. In fact, Rashid carries on raising a host of other topics, notably people’s attitude to the past – why they are nostalgic about it and he elaborates this with a tale everyone can relate to: how his father tells the story of a great Lebanese leader returning home from exile with such conviction that Rashid always thought he had been there, until one day he calculates the dates and realises that it just couldn’t have been possible. Rashid demands an explanation for this very human behaviour, how people acquire beliefs about the universe and society.

Rashid has a dead-pan sense of humour, sparked by his youthful eagerness to accept the craziness and unpredictability of the world he is part of but which others around him find impossible to accept, although his initial response to learning that the earth is round, not flat, and revolves on its own axis, is to collapse in a fainting fit.
“How could it be that the earth was really a ball floating in space, just like that, with nothing supporting it and attached to nothing!” And what happened to heaven – “There was no heaven above earth,” he concludes. When Gagarin goes up into space, Rashid is as abruptly shocked, but Gargarin becomes a part of him, and he buys a newspaper for the first time, just to read about the historic voyage into space, and get pictures “of his brother Gagarin”. In spite of the pictures, he is still unable to convince his neighbour Sadiq that the earth is really not flat.

Different and enticing

Rashid al-Daif shows how far the novel form has come from just telling a straight story. He does indeed tell the story of Rashid and his family and friends, but on so many different and enticing levels that you have sometimes to run to keep up with him.

You want to linger on one level – where he is describing his own birth and his mother’s marriage, or another – where he is trying to explain and examine his relationship to his father (when he died, Rashid “couldn’t manage a single tear”), but you have to read on and not keep Mr Kawabata waiting.

Kawabata is the ideal person for young Rashid to write to, in fact the only one, firstly because he is not an Arab and is far away, and secondly because he has died, so he and he alone understands what it is to experience what Rashid has also experienced, the near-death with which the novel begins and ends. Mr Kawabata alone can understand the thing that causes Rashid pain in his life, “something that is metres, miles or generations away”.

Dear Mr Kawabata is an exciting novel to read because it gives the reader a fresh perspective from which to approach fiction, but it is haunting and sad since Rashid does not find any answers to his appeals and readers might feel, as I did, a feeling of frustration when Rashid finally completes his letter and signs off. Mr Kawabata must, surely, reply!

From Banipal 5 - Summer 1999

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