As Though She Were Sleeping: a dull work of imagination

Slipping in and out of a coma, the central character in Elias Khoury's novel is more attached to the version of herself that appears in her semi-conscious state than to the person she really is.

As Though She Were Sleeping
Elias Khoury
MacLehose Press
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Like a lot of authors of his generation and political tendency, Elias Khoury treats stories, histories especially, with suspicion. There's no paradox there: most arts are practised at least as often in a spirit of sceptical destruction as of classicist affirmation.

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Nevertheless, when one thinks of the literary novelists in whom the spirit of 1968 is strongest - I'm thinking of Jose Saramago, Thomas Pynchon, JMG Le Clezio, and perhaps Milan Kundera or Ismail Kadare - the common theme is an adversarial attitude to narrative quite different from the basically aesthetic disruptions of high modernist fiction or the nouvelle roman. These mostly post-mid-Sixties, mostly pre-mid-Eighties authors, treat stories not as material to be manipulated, but as a treacherous element in human affairs, to be inoculated against via a range of deconstructive strategies.

There's aversion therapy: like a child forced to smoke an entire packet of cigarettes so that he'll never be tempted to light up again, the reader is subjected to an overwhelming swarm of competing tales. There are instructive games involving narrators who are not so much unreliable as opaque, forever getting in the way, arguing with themselves or among themselves, holding up the action to deliver tendentious aphorisms.

There's parody, of course, of the opportunist tactics of official history, the self-protective rituals of scholarship, all tilted at the supposedly fanciful idea that one can ever get to the bottom of things. Magical realism, with its folksy doubtfulness, fantastical happenings and cyclical narratives, is rarely far away, though the point is less to luxuriate in strangeness than to frustrate the impulses of rationalist common sense.

This is a sensibility with a marked hostility to reductionism. Nevertheless, if one were to boil it all down to a single moral it might be one given in Pynchon's mock-18th-century novel Mason & Dixon: "Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base." Story is an instrument of power. The best mode of resistance is rambling novels filled with vague and shadowy goings-on - parades, as Pynchon recommends, of "fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev'ry Radius, Masters of Disguise..."

That describes a good deal of Elias Khoury's fiction. Still, as a Beiruti of Christian background, a former member of Fatah and a witness of civil war, occupation and massacre, his unease at the power of univocal narrative to trap people (or peoples) in a certain interpretation of events hardly seems frivolous. In his best books, Gate of the Sun and Yalo, the procedures of postmodernism come to mimic the fog of war. Unsettling scenes emerge from the obscurity of elision and superimposition, but their meaning quickly slips out of reach. The same goes for 2007's Ka'anaha Nae'ma, now appearing in English as As Though She Were Sleeping, though here the murk is thicker and the lucid passages are less memorable. In Yalo, the immediate action which the novel revolved around was the interrogation of an accused rapist and robber. Here, it is a woman slipping in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed. The results are correspondingly less gripping.

We move between Meelya's dreams and reminiscences, of her wedding night driving to a hotel in Chtaura, her peculiar marriage to Mansour, who spouts Arabic poetry but refuses to write any himself, of the couple's history in Beirut, Nazareth and Jaffa, the formation of Israel and many family legends. Meelya is a dedicated sleeper, more attached to her dream self, a lithe brown girl with green eyes, than to her own physical person. She insists on sleeping, or pretending to, while Mansour makes love to her (ambiguous rape is something of a signature of Khoury's fiction, as are mystic midwives and the byways of the Syriac church). Her dreams may or may not have prophetic powers - how could we know, when it is never clear whether or not we have left them behind? - but at any rate it is suggested that she meets certain other characters in her sleep before she encounters them in her waking life.

Accounts of dreams are proverbially very dull and Khoury gives us a lot of them. "The child looks at her and takes her into his eyes, and water encircles her on all sides. She tries to get out of the water of the eyes; she reaches out and feels that she is drowning," and so on. Then again, the novel sketches an argument for the idea that such reports ought to be infinitely interesting. "Poetry's a dream," Meelya tells Mansour. "The only way I can picture a poet is as someone who had a dream and wrote it down." And as Mansour says later: "I get bored when I hear the same story. See the difference from poetry: you can repeat a line of verse till kingdom come and feel the same ecstasy each time, but you can only listen to a story two or three times and then you get bored."

Whether Meeyla's written-down dreams rise to the level deathless poetry is a question of taste, of course, and smooth as Humphrey Davies's idiomatic translation is, it would be hard to judge from the English version. Besides, the important thing is the interplay between dreams, poems, rumours and, eventually, religious and national myths. ("History is a lie," announces Mansour in the course of a lecture on where arak comes from).

Indeed, as the novel progresses it almost comes to seem like an experimental comparison of two kinds of novelistic tedium: recounted dreams versus recurring mythic archetypes. Characters constantly mirror one another: Meelya agrees to marry Mansour because of his resemblance to her brother Moussa, for instance, and at their honeymoon hotel they are waited on by a pair of eerily similar maids whom they call Wadeea 1 and Wadeea 2, who in turn seem to appear in new guises at the hospital where Meelya gives birth. Such uncanny duplications are everywhere.

Meanwhile, the motif of a father killing his son grows increasingly insistent, established via the abducted child of a family maid and reiterated in Meelya's grandfather Saleem, rumoured to have thrown a stone at his own son when surprised during an assignation with a prostitute. The pattern echoes through a number of variations on the story of Abraham and Isaac, and several exuberantly heretical rewrites of Jesus's crucifixion. At length it is hinted that Meelya's own story may be yet another version of the latter, though perhaps only in the way that any story can be found in another if one is motivated enough to look for it.

In the end, though, such stories can get in the way of living. As Mansour complains when the couple moves to Nazareth: "I've had enough. No one can live in God's own city ..." (Meelya has by this point become convinced that she knows where Jesus's house is.) They also threaten to overshadow what is most diverting about Khoury's novel, though perhaps least consistent with its philosophical commitments. Khoury is a great collector of and contributor to Lebanese urban folklore, and As Though She Were Sleeping is never more enjoyable than when recounting, for instance, Meelya's strange experiences with a pair of notorious bone setters or when it claims that Beirut opposed the introduction of church bells because "this Frankish habit" would encourage young men to use the bell ropes to stage jumping competitions.

Novels are great repositories for unauthenticable rumour, and specious-sounding historical titbits like the bell-ringing story, or a digression on the introduction of trousers into the Arab world, are a standard tactic of the fretful postmodernist resistance. But notice how delightful these ones are, how full of fun. It's a common experience when reading in, say, Saramago, to see a few bright narrative fragments rising from the churn of symbol and innuendo and wish that the author could let his guard down, follow them for a while and let them take on the colours of a fully imagined reality. The same goes here. Perhaps that's an indulgence when dreadful forces are forever eliminating minority voices from the chorus of the present. Nevertheless, readers like to dream a little, too.

Ed Lake is the former deputy editor of The Review.