Hailed as “the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga,” Gate of the Sun (2006) by Elias Khoury is my (tardy) Around the World for a Good Book selection for March. This epic novel features the narrator, Dr. Khalil telling stories to the comatose Yunes, a veteran of the conflicts with Israel seen as a hero to his people. I didn’t catch on to this myself, but a review in the New York Times relates the telling of stories to keep someone alive to the classic Arabic tale “A Thousand and One Nights.”
This novel is challenging to read both because of it’s stream-of-consciousness narrative as well as the grim details of its subject matter. Khalil tells stories of his own life, stories about Yunes, stories of their families, and friends and villagers they know. The narrative stretches from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, punctuated by the historic conflicts with Israel. War, death, poverty, oppression, misery, and hopelessness flavor many of the tales. Their village is victim of massacres and their people commit their own atrocities. Not all of the novel is so dismal though, there are humorous stories, tales of love and love lost, and perseverance despite it all.
I have to confess that I know far too little of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and with more knowledge of that history I could appreciate this book better. On the other hand, this very personal tale is a good background for studying the history. Of all the Around the World for a Good Book novels I’ve read thus far, this one may be the closest to speaking for a people at the present time.
I won’t describe the darkness to you, because I hate describing things. Ever since I was in school I’ve hated describing things. The teacher would give us an essay to write: Describe a rainy day. And I wouldn’t know how, because I hate comparing things. Things can only be described in their own terms, and when we compare them, we forget them. A girl’s face is like a girl’s face and not like the moon. The whiteness and roundness of everything else are different. When we say that a girl’s face is like the moon, we forget the girl. We make the description so that we can forget, and I don’t like to to forget. Rain is like rain, isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough that it should rain for us to smell the smell of winter? – p. 68
Got you! I’ve got you now, and it’s up to me to decipher what you said. Everything needs translating. Everything that’s said is a riddle or a euphemism that needs to be interpreted. Now I must reinterpret you from the beginning. I’ll take apart your disjointed phrases to see what’s inside them and will but you back together to get at your truth.
Can I get at your truth?
What does your truth mean?
I don’t know, but I’ll discover things that had never crossed my mind. – p. 398
Why are all your stories like that?
How could you stand this life?
These days we cans stand it because of video; Abu Kamal was right — we’ve become a video nation. Umm Hassan brought me a tape of al-Ghabsiyyeh, and some other woman brough a tape of another village — all people do is swap videotapes, and in these images we find the strength to continue. We sit in front of the small screen and see small spots, distorted pictures and close-ups, and from these we invent the country we desire. We invent our life through pictures. – p. 462