Friday, October 19, 2007

Ghassan Kanafani: All That's Left To You

True artists, and those who actually live their philosophy, politics or literature exist mostly within books, confined to pages, between lines. Very rarely do artists rise above the mundane and declare their true affiliations. Nowadays, writers are afraid to take sides in political and social quarrels, let alone show solidarity for real issues, for the causes of life, humanity, freedom or politics. There is one name, from the middle east, a novelist and activist, in whose death and murder, true artistic activity was able to flourish, albeit, briefly.

Ghassan Kanafani, Palestinian novelist, writer of short stories and political activist was killed in a car bomb explosion along with his young niece in Beirut in 1972, the alleged responsibility later on accepted by the Israeli secret services supposedly, a death that was neither condemned by the Israeli left, its writers or in the west. Kanafani was a man of the left, and was one amongst the many intellectuals who were murdered by the Israelis, some of them as punishment for the terrorist outrage at Munich. The Palestinians lost a voice and Arab literature a new influence, and it is intriguing to think how his growing influence would shape Arab literature, considering that his published work is considered of much importance. He was only 36 when he was killed.

I recently read his novella called All that is left to you, and this book also includes a few short stories. Kanafani is usually identified with his Men in the sun novella and as a writer of short stories.In an excellent introduction to the latter mentioned novel, Hilary Kirkpatrick writes that Kanafani lived and died according to his ideals. Yet, unlike many committed writers, he refused to impose an ideological scheme on his fiction in any but the most general terms. Although his literature served the cause of Palestine, they have a universal appeal, thanks to his literary talents and his tenacity in preserving that freedom without which art is stifled.

In the novel All that is left to you, ( useful link) there are five characters, two of which are time and the desert. The novel thus has different voices which are initially difficult to relate to. But the type face for each voice is different, and we soon find how and when the desert and time speak. The story is that of a man, called Hamid who flees across the desert to Jordan, leaving his sister, Maryam behind, who has married Zakaria, who had gotten her pregnant outside wedlock but has eventually married to.Hamid cannot take the shame his sister has subjected him to and leaves her with the promise of writing to her when he gets there. He runs into an Israeli border guard and ambushes him, while his sister, who is faced with her husband ( previously married with five children) cannot take her new subjugation and sharing her husband with another woman any longer, and in a frenzy stabs him.

The other two narrators, namely time and the desert reveal what happens to these three characters from their point of view, adding perspectives that would be otherwise hard to see. As events escalate, the prose gets quick and pacy till we reach the final denouement. It seemed to me that there was no need to have different type faces for the narrators but that is just an observation. Perhaps, it should have been left to the readers to differentiate. I found it slightly tedious.

The style was supposed to be highly experimental for Arab fiction at that time and it clearly is a fore runner of similar experiments elsewhere. The prose is never sloppy nor excessively fable like( which is a problem with Arabic novels). The narrations merge with each other but we can separate them. The images are brilliantly constructed and the usual cliches of male dominance, honour and manhood are subtly woven into the situation of Palestine itself. Hamid tells his sister Maryam, a woman seething with repressed sexual desires that don't talk about marriage before our national cause has been decided. Maryam reflects on her first sexual experience with her going to be husband thus:

He pulled himself closer to me, and the heat of his breath set me on fire. I knew it was going to happen and I couldn't resist him. My nakedness was fluid beneath him. The darkness throbbed with excited hisses. I began relentlessly undulating, up and down, rhythmically, crushed beneath his shoulders, flung, pulled, crumpled, left quiet and then dragged, squeezed, kneaded and soaked in water in a terrifying melange of heat and cold....................This perhaps seems necessary to her and I felt it might reflect what is happening to her land too. Kanafani's two characters, brother and sister are thus on a journey, separately and in the end both take the plunge.

This novel is not the most poetic but deft and stylish. The terrors of the desert and the main protagonists are conveyed well. Kanafani conveys the miseries of his land quite well, a cause for which he died and at the same time, writing a highly innovative and charged document of Arabic fiction.

The moods of my eternal body, says the desert, love and hate and an unwillingness to forget. Time itself was rooted in my depths. Violence and anger. And before and above everything: submission. And says Maryam when thinking of her brother.........

He seemed to be like the last train that has left a deserted platform, listening to that silence which belongs to places of exile and loneliness.

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