In Khoury’s The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol, Beirut takes shape within a tangle of stories
At various stages of his life Elias Khoury has been a dramatist, a literary critic, a journalist and a professor of Middle Eastern studies. At the same time he has written novels, a number of which play out against civil war and political upheaval in his native Lebanon. In his latest to appear in English, The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol, we see Khoury continuing this line of narrative inquiry and redeploying his trademark stylistic tropes and themes: backstory and shape-shifting perspectives, the illusoriness of memory and the elusiveness of truth – and above all an emphasis on the power of storytelling.
As with Khoury’s 1998 novel Gate of the Sun, The Broken Mirrors opens at the end of a story and then unspools to the beginning. Karim, a doctor, is leaving Beirut in the early hours of the morning. The night before he celebrated his 40th birthday alone – far from his French wife and daughters in Montpellier and away from the three Lebanese women who have inflicted an “emotional maelstrom”. Why, he asks himself, did he leave France and return to Lebanon after all these years?
This question pops up again and again throughout the book. To start with, we learn Karim has returned to build a hospital in Beirut. Later we are told it is because of crippling homesickness. Later still we hear his intention is to track down Sinalcol, the mysterious “phantom” of the civil war.
These answers, and Karim’s actions, come to us in a flood of recollections. After two months in Beirut – a place he vowed never to return to – he decides to “reopen his old accounts and recover the shadows of that past”. He replays events from his youth with twin brother Nasim and their father Nasri – “the Trinity”. The brothers’ paths diverge: Karim goes on to mix in leftist circles, Nasim joins the Phalangists; Karim woos women, Nasim pays for them.
Along with the family Trinity there is Karim’s messy love triangle with former fiancée Hend (now Nasim’s wife), maid Ghazala and Muna, the wife of the architect designing the hospital. Karim regales us in tender and sensual detail of his amorous exploits and eventual heartbreak while trying to fathom “how this triangular relationship had taken shape in the midst of the dust of Beirut”.
Each episode of Karim’s life takes the form of a resurfaced memory. His adventures, together with Beirut legends and rumours and accounts of those around him, are presented as a series of “tangled” stories. There is the horrific story of Meena, the Sri Lankan maid, who learns about her new whereabouts (“We’re not in the east, we’re in the middle, which is why we live in a state of confusion over our identity”) and her insignificant status there. There is the story of Nasri’s slow decline, the joyful story of Karim’s first encounter with his future wife, and a sequence of heroic stories about activists, militants and revolutionaries engaged in ideological debate or brutal conflict.
These latter tales comprise decades of struggle and can at times feel dense and meandering, requiring the reader to keep alert to each faction and movement, and to glance frequently at the book’s extensive glossary. In contrast, Khoury’s other stories, which deal with individuals and inclinations not parties or causes, are far more streamlined and have more success at evoking empathy.
Some tales veer slightly towards magic realism. Karim’s pharmacist father concocts a green potion that, when drunk by women, renders him irresistible. And Ghazala’s superstitious tale to Karim – “the strangest story he’d ever heard” – reveals that she is inhabited by two souls.
Cumulatively, Khoury’s stories paint a fascinating picture of Beirut life, both during war and fragile peace. As many of his characters are prone to lying, and his slippery protagonist unable to candidly declare his motives, the stories also show that Khoury is not what Virginia Woolf called a “truth-teller”, an author “who assures us that things are precisely as they say they are”.
But who needs a truth-teller when they can have a wonderful storyteller. Regardless of authenticity, we hang on Karim’s every word and reminiscence, from “chewing the cud of his memories” in France to finding out that Beirut’s people “grind their memories underfoot”. By the end of his journey Karim has absorbed enough painful truths about himself and realised that Beirut, too, for all its scars, will go on surviving as “each time the city died its population raised it from the dead against its will”.
Khoury’s capacious and entrancing novel, masterfully translated by the award-winning Humphrey Davies, is an extraordinary achievement.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.
This book is available on Amazon.
Updated: February 12, 2015 04:00 AM