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As Though She Were Sleeping, By Elias Khoury
Tuesday 09 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. His new novel also pivots on mountains – in Lebanon – and appreciations of sexual union.
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.
Khoury's style resembles the "world of circles" in which Meelya is said to live. 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 contextualised by the Great Arab Revolt and Palestinian dispossession. Khoury is masterly in the early stages, in the depths of Meelya's dream-life. As the novel moves towards the miraculous, rhythmic exactitude slackens. 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.
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