Threats to the Sword
I recently received a generous package of review copies from Archipelago Books, a fast-growing Brooklyn-based publisher of international titles. This came in handy because I had been trying to find Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun since hearing the Palestinian author speak at a PEN conference in March, and no bookstore was carrying it. I’m glad that companies like Archipelago exist, because we’d never hear of these books otherwise.
Like many people, I feel very personally and emotionally involved in the new war that’s exploding in the Holy Lands (but we don’t treat them like they’re holy, do we?). I’m not even sure I can disengage my own emotions enough to objectively review these new books by Mahmoud Darwish and Elias Khoury. Both books are completely infused with awareness of Palestinian identity, especially Khoury’s, which relates history by telling the life story of a (choose one) terrorist/freedom fighter who lies dying on a hospital bed. I am not going to try to offer full reviews of either of these books, but I have enjoyed the opportunity to read and try to learn from them.
Elias Khoury is a strong and ambitious novelist. His Gate of the Sun is meant to be epic in scale, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The narrative sweeps between 1948 and 1967 and 1982 and back again; we meet many people of many ethnic backgrounds, and the author’s gentle understanding illuminates each anecdote. The moral messages are sometimes heavy-handed, but the prose always maintains a light touch, with pleasing pastoral notes that remind me of William Saroyan and sad ironic dashes that recall Milan Kundera. I’m only about a third of the way through this book, but it has already made me feel a closer personal affinity towards a people I don’t know well enough.
Elias Khoury was born in Beirut, and has just published his thoughts on the current war in the London Review of Books.
Khoury is an impressive writer, but I found Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s work more stunning and distinctive. The enigmatic and crystal-clear poems in his new collection Why Did You Leave The Horse Alone? combine ancient and contemporary voices:
A bit of speech of God for the trees
is enough for me to build with words
a safe shelter
for the cranes that the hunter missed
and speak of grand problems and epiphanies:
The curtain fell
They were victorious
They crossed our entire yesterday
the vicitim his sins when he apologized in advance
for whatever came to mind
They replaced time’s bell
and they were victorious
After reading this book, I read the poet’s biography. It is truly Kafkaesque that as a child he and his family were legally classified as “present-absent aliens” in the land where they’d lived their whole lives.
It’s fascinating to read these rich poems and become absorbed in the depths of a civilization currently glimpsed in America only through horrific newspaper headlines. I hope some Israelis are reading these books, and I hope some Palestinians are reading Israeli books as well.
Darwish has described his poetry as a “threat to the sword”. Amen to that. I highly recommend both of these books to anybody looking for something new to read.