Little Mountain

If we require any warning regarding how long the current conflict in Syria might last, we could consider the Lebanese Civil War which lasted between 1975 and 1990. It, too, was a confusion of religion and politics, with roots in European interference in the region (Lebanon had been a French colony, whose status quo was destabilised by, among other things, an influx of Palestinian refugees after the creation of Israel, and again in the aftermath of the Six Day War). Elias Khoury was born in Lebanon in 1948 and fought in the civil war, drawing on his experiences to write Little Mountain, his second novel, which was published in 1977, and translated into English by Maia Tabet in 1989.

The novel makes no attempt to explain or examine the circumstances of the war but instead presents an impressionistic series of moments interspersed with memories. The first chapter, for example, returns three times to the following scene:

“Five men come jumping out of a military-like jeep. Carrying automatic rifles, they surround the house… They come up to the house, knock on the door. My mother opens the door, surprised. Their leader asks about me.”

The second description is much as the first, with subtle shifts in punctuation, but by the third we are told “five men break down the door”, as if the memory, or the emotion behind it, has intensified. In between, the narrator remembers his childhood, a rural idyll, encroached by ‘progress,’ which is often represented by cars:

“We got bigger and the cars got bigger.”

Eventually the cars are like dangerous animals: “The cars gnaw at the street with their teeth.” Corruption also threatens (“Instead of the old kind of robberies…there was now organised robbery. Gang robbery, premeditated and merciless.”) as well as political instability (“1958: barricades in the neighbourhood. Sombre faces. The Muslims want to kill us.”). Rising religious tensions are obvious when they find the church (“the heavy door that was always open”) closed.

A church is central to the second chapter, but now it is a defensive postion in the civil war. One of two remaining priests, Father Marcel, was once a French soldier:

“I believed like all French soldiers, that we were the bearers of a civilising mission to the oppressed peoples of the Orient.”

He is now convinced that ‘civilisation’ comes not via armed force but through culture and religion. Talal, one of the soldiers, disagrees:

“You’re just colonisers, coming in with the ten commandments. Giving us the commandments and taking the land.”

Politics runs through the novel in this way, in snatched conversations and statements, often in the midst of violence. In this chapter the questions, “What is the difference between a priest and a cop?” and, “What is the difference between war and civil war?” are repeated as if they are children’s riddles, challenging the reader as well as the characters. Also repeated is the idea that “the sea is our goal”, a military objective of reaching the coast which takes on mystical associations. The church is frequently compared to a ship (“and the world is a rough sea”):

“We are together, living close to the sea in a wrecked ship. When we reach the sea, our ship will sink and our story will be over.”

By the chapter’s end, however, it is the coffin of one of the soldiers which is likened to a ship:

“A long wooden ship floating in the sea. The ship sways on the uplifted hands.”

Though Khoury’s writing can seem immersed in the impressionistic chaos of detail, it is also laced with such recurrent images, a reminder of how carefully crafted it is. As the reader becomes accustomed to the novel’s style, the relationship between memory and the present becomes clearer. Often one scene – for example the scene between Talal and Mariam on the beach in chapter three – is repeated intersperse with scenes of the fighters. Further, that initial memory sparks off other memories which then surround his conversation with Mariam. In this way we are both reminded of the humanity of the soldiers and their previous lives. Here, Khoury cleverly emphasises that Talal is the same person as he was then as Mariam’s phrase, “You’re a romantic,” is repeated by the narrator, a fellow fighter.

Though the war was only two years old when the novel was published, Khoury sets the final chapter in exile, in France. Here it takes on a despairing tone, ending with the memory of a hanging and the statement that, “Ropes are more important than books.”

“Next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with stealing the rope, we should break it; next time we shouldn’t content ourselves with overrunning the squares and the buildings, we should destroy them.”

Little Mountain is a stark reminder of the effects of civil war, where the ravaged landscape of Lebanon echoes the devastation of its characters’ lives, and the scattered memories of happier times are like glowing coals among the embers. It confirms Khoury’s place as one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.

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3 Responses to “Little Mountain”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds very powerful, Grant – and also a reminder that the world is not necessarily becoming a better place. Another good find by you for the #1977club!

  2. The 1977 Club starts today! – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

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