Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
by Elias Khoury
Translated by Maia Tabet
Archipelago Books, December 2010,
303 pp, $22, ISBN: 978-0-9819873-2-3
“In the name of the people”
Robert Lowell’s Notebook (1969) concludes with this brief note: “Dates fade faster than we do.” When, four years later, Lowell republished the volume as History, he dropped that final page. Dates, after all, without prospect or retrospect (Emerson’s words), are of little use; Gore Vidal was indeed correct when he described the USA as the United States of Amnesia; then again, that judgement could be said to stand for every other nation – and Lebanon, as Elias Khoury would no doubt agree, is a case in point. Over the past century and a half, the country has suffered no less than four civil wars, the last one of which (1975 – 1990) found its chief chronicler in Khoury, who wrote its history, as it were, in real-time. When the war began, he had just returned from finishing a doctorate at the Sorbonne (on the 1840-60 war) and, though a Christian, he joined the left-wing coalition of Palestinian progressives. He was the militant intellectual par excellence.
White Masks (1981), Khoury’s fourth novel, appears at first as a whodunnit set in war-torn Beirut. On Thursday, March 20, 1980, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, an employee at the post office disappears – leaving no clue as to his whereabouts. Three weeks later, his body is found in a sea-front garbage pile. There seems to be no reason for his murder. The narrator’s somewhat macabre imagination is instantly lit:
‘One morning, I saw in the paper a short piece entitled “Dreadful murder in the UNESCO district” and, don’t ask me why, but whenever I see the word “dreadful,” the word “wonderful” springs to mind.’
The narrator remains nameless throughout: we know he is young, a graduate in political science, and though an aspiring journalist, works in a travel agency. Gradually, he begins to interview everyone connected to Jaber: his wife, Mrs. Noha Jaber, Ali Kalakesh, an architect, Fatimah Fakro, a watchman’s wife, Zayn ‘Alloul (the garbage collector who discovers Jaber’s body), Dr Marwan Bitar (the pathologist to whom Jaber’s body is assigned), Fahd Badreddin, a combatant (and gauche intellectual) and Nada Najjar, Jaber’s younger daughter. Once introduced – via helpfully fact-based epigraphs at the top of each chapter – Khoury’s ensemble goes careening around the streets of Beirut. In Noha Jaber’s story, for instance, we watch as Jaber goes about hanging up posters of his son, Ahmad the martyr. Years pass, people think the war is over; Jaber, however, is still hanging up posters, feeding first his depression and then his madness. Jaber eventually begins erasing text and images from the posters, tearing them up and then chewing on them. Unrelenting in its portrayal of such martyr’s families (a fate which befell many during the war), Khoury is masterful at depicting the empty platitudes of the militia leaders and politicians who routinely appear in the novel. Their brief appearances are always mediated by the reaction they effect from their listeners: when they speak, either silence or brief agreement ensues and they are then free to go on their merry way. Much of this wisdom is clearly the result of Khoury’s own experiences during the war; he says as much through Zayn, the stoic garbage collector:
‘. . . nowadays, everything was up for grabs, daylight robbery was the order of the day, and it was all done “in the name of the people” and “for the just cause of the nation.” What cause, what bullshit!’
Moral deprivation is everywhere: Ghassan, the pathologist’s son and gynaecologist, whom it is rumoured has made his fortune performing illegal abortions, replies as follows when prompted by his father to settle down:
“I sleep with the whole of womankind! After I give her the anaesthetic, I have sex with the woman before carrying out the operation. Medically speaking, it’s helpful – having sex with a pregnant woman before an abortion is helpful. I sleep with her and she feels nothing. I operate, she pays. Instead of having to pay for it, I do what I feel like and get paid for it. So why get married?”
White Masks, like Little Mountain (1977), is a relentless collage of bleak and powerfully depicted sequences of death and despair. It is tempting to think of the typical Khoury novel in terms of the non-linear techniques favoured by such directors as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Jean-Luc Godard. Better yet, think of Khoury as a Wim Wenders: impulsively switching from black and white to colour, and from tripod to hand-held. Khoury himself admits that many of his works were “not conceived originally as novels . . . instead . . . I published them one by one and it so happened that everybody liked them very much so I decided to combine them into a book.”
That said, White Masks is, at least
initially, anything but an easy read: it is evasive and often needlessly
repetitive. It also suffers from a hackneyed sort of syntax, much of which I
suspect is down to the translator, Maia Tabet, whose approach seems rather too casual.
Though it is let down by its epilogue – where Khoury begins to self-analyse and
ask far too many obvious rhetorical questions: “Is the identification of the
murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime?” –
he redeems himself through one of the most hard-hitting portraits in the novel:
that of Moeen Abbas, a Palestinian medical student at Cairo University.
Deported from Egypt right in the midst of his studies and a budding love
affair, Moeen is quite literally dumped in Syria with only five pounds in cash
and a handful of Cleopatra cigarettes. After a few weeks spent sleeping on the
floor of a mosque, a collection raised by the local community helps Moeen secure
a passport and a visa for Sweden, where he will continue his studies. Robbed of
his money and papers at the airport, Moeen then hangs himself in a bathroom
stall and is found in the morning by a cleaner “his neck shrivelled to the size
of a child’s, his body rigid: a hanging stiff, like the ones you see pictures
of in the paper”.
Despite its occasional rambling, White Masks is purposeful and affecting – an Arab Decameron of sorts; and though we never find out who killed Khalil Ahmad Jaber, we enjoy the meandering narratives despite the lack of dénouement.