29 September 2011

As Though She Were Sleeping

An edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
Postmodernist fiction tends to be suspicious of populist scholarship, seeking alternates in the unreliability of individual memory and collective conscience. The strength and, indeed, the fallibility of first-hand experience make us necessary curators of everyday history. As Though She Were Sleeping by Elias Khoury (translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies) is a work that seeks to make just such borderless transgressions.

The book stands on the precipices of magic realism and the stream of consciousness. It is divided into three sections that chronicle three nights in the life of its protagonist, Meelya. The three nights are spent in a hospital bed in Jaffa in December 1947, just before the birth of Meelya’s child, and each night deals with fragmented dreams and recollections that the reader must piece together. Meelya is born in Beirut and moves to Nazareth in 1946 when she marries Mansour, a Palestinian. The move from Nazareth to Jaffa, where charged political tensions between the European Jewish settlers and the dispossessed Palestinians have already resulted in the death of Mansour’s brother, sparks off a series of intensely mythic visions in Meelya’s sleep.

The book is non-linear and repetitive - a twice-edged sword. Stories are played out over and over again, encircling Meelya’s moments of slumber and wakefulness with sharp new recollections that texture her existing, often disjointed, memories. Through a process of constant reinvention and expansion, the stories shift and crystallise slowly, sometimes even displacing earlier versions of themselves. What emerges is a dense layering of complex detail. Each time Meelya harks back to an incident, additional information is revealed, knotted up in the unclear divisions between the real and the unreal. Pointedly ambiguous, the book lays its stories out on a hybrid plane that suffuses dream and reality on the one hand and past and present on the other.

The ambiguity endows the book with a vagueness that is best described by the author when Meelya tries to explain her dreams to Mansour: “She tried to tell him the story and it came out in no particular order, so he understood nothing… She’d skate from one word to another, or from one word to a series of images, and then be unable to recover the end of the string that they call the story’s beginning. Her string had no end; she told stories like someone winding string, and would keep going without being able to tie things one to another.”

Khoury’s often purposeless ramblings are, in fact, like many strings left hanging loosely in the air, as though the author just let himself go completely without controlling the flow of interior discourse. Often, it is control that is sorely lacking in the new proponents of the genre, when compared to their precursors (I’m thinking of Joyce, Garcia and Borges, two of whom, like Khoury, I have only read in translation).

Khoury’s text is heavy with religious imagery that lends further indistinctness to his characters. Where the book is problematic, though, is not in its intentional ambiguity, but in the simple aspect of readability. There are several chunks of long-winded text, especially in the second and third parts, that simply do not contribute to plot progression and are characterised by little more than the indulgence of laboured description. When the formless gives way to the structureless, literature begins to tread dangerous grounds and the decoding process can be disorienting and tedious.

Contemporary surrealism necessitates allegory and, in this case, political discourse. Meelya’s persistent stupor is both an escape and an affliction. She finds herself overwhelmingly affected by the tragedies of life within the Palestinian state and the formation of Israel (which coincides with the birth of her child). She becomes so dependent on her dream-world that she is unable to step back into reality at all. Ultimately, her escape needs to be a return to reality. Through her dreams, she investigates the past, foretells the future and often entirely misses the present, as though it is far easier for her to pilot herself in such a world than in her own. Indeed, that is what all fiction is about.