Monday, March 17, 2008

Review of Gate of the Sun from IR 29.2

Elias Khoury, Gate of the Sun. Trans. Humphrey Davies. Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, 2006. $26.00 cloth (ISBN 0-9763950-2-9), 539 pages.

Reviewed by Nathaniel Perry

Khalil, the narrator of this sprawling epic, is a storyteller. Well, he doesn’t call himself that; he is a doctor. Though he is not really a doctor anymore and has no formal medical training; he is more a nurse. However, he doesn’t do a lot of nursing either at Galilee hospital, which is not in Galilee, but is outside Beirut in the shattered Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila. Khalil nurses just one patient, the comatose body of a legendary Palestinian resistance fighter, Yunes, who Khalil keeps alive through regular feedings of honey and milk, baths twice a day, and, more than anything else, telling the unresponsive Yunes story after story after story. The situation, as another reviewer has noted, is a kind of inverse of Scheherazade. Here, the stories keep the listener alive. Though, as the reader is plunged further into the thicket of narratives, we come to believe, as Khalil (and the author) insists, that it is primarily stories that keep us all alive. And stories, as they are told in this novel, refute themselves, retell themselves, undo themselves, reinvent themselves, and become themselves. They are breathing entities; they are people. And without stories, a people, a person, has no meaning, no life.

The author of Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury, was born in Beirut, and early in his life, after visiting the refugee camps that surround that city, he became deeply committed to Palestinian human rights. And Khoury’s commitment, one surmises from the novel, has developed into a pledge not only to help the refugees, but also to get their story straight. The book brims with historical detail—anecdotes from the expulsions of 1948 through to the horrors of the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s. Khoury, however, tells the Palestinian story not from an abstract and widened historical vantage point, but through the intimate personal stories of hundreds of individuals. Khalil tells Yunes, and us, of his own travels to China, of the loss of his grandmother (and the pillow stuffed with rotting flowers she left to him); he tells Yunes the stories of Yunes’s own life —his great love affair with his wife Nahilah, the death of his son Ibrahim, the months he spent hiding out in the wilderness, his sleeping inside giant olive trees. Khalil tells stories of people he barely knows—a young mother who sews together a piece of pita bread to please and quiet her wailing child, that same young mother moments later forced to murder the child, a former hero turned madman and caged in an asylum, a troupe of French actors come to Shatila for research, a man whose herd of buffalo is massacred by Israeli gunners at the Lebanese border, the cattle’s “blood splashing the sky” as he stands among them dumbfounded and ruined.

The result of this multiplicity of tales is not just the creation of a world, a frequent concomitant of any lengthy novel, but the creation of the world. The stories, as Khalil sees it, are his only option for making sense of the untrustworthy chaos of history. “We have no alternatives,” he says at one point, “and no masks, and even war no longer provides enough of a mask to conceal the whirlpool in which we’re drowning.” Khoury, I think, agrees. The catalogue of historical events in this novel is not what has happened to the Palestinian people. Rather, what has happened is the sum of smaller things—each uncle murdered, each child born in a field, each glass of sugared rosewater lifted in celebration, each ghost seen among the ruins of a village, each olive stolen from what was once a family’s own orchard. And each story that isn’t told and retold wipes a portion of that people from existence. Thus Khoury, through Khalil’s desperate and unorthodox means of keeping Yunes alive, is making an equally desperate and real attempt to keep a people alive.

Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun is now in at least its second printing and has received much attention here in the U.S. and abroad. But it deserves more readers. The book is a masterpiece, yes for its wildly impressive technique and wonderfully complicated narrator Khalil, but even more so for its deft handling of emotion, both pain and love (which might here be the same thing), and for its damning insistence that we, its readers, keep our ears open to its stories, to all stories, to all people. Near the novel’s end, in a final address to Yunes, Khalil says, “I tell you, no, this isn’t how stories end. No.” Khoury, in this Palestinian epic, has done his best to keep the story from ending, and he seems to be asking, maybe quietly begging, his readers to do the same.

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