Jabbour Douaihy's new novel revolves around the trauma of Lebanon's civil war. The story deals with the power of recollection, the effects of history, and how one must constantly affirm one's own past anew. Andreas Pflitsch has read "June Rain" for Qantara.de
Societies often react to a collectively experienced trauma, such as natural catastrophes, war, and civil war, by suppressing all memory of the event. Under the motto "something couldn't have happened that shouldn't have happened," events are passed over in total silence. In order to prevent this from occurring after the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990, the sociologist Samir Khalaf from the American University of Beirut called for a thorough discussion of the immediate past.
Khalaf felt that this was urgently necessary in order to avert the danger of history repeating itself. In the 1990s, Khalaf – holds a PhD degree in Comparative Literature from the Sorbonne and works as Professor of French Literature at the University of Lebanon – was one of the most prominent critics of what he saw as a lack of willingness among the Lebanese to face up to the dark side of their history.
Long tradition of historical amnesia
In fact, there is a long tradition in Lebanon of suppressing recollections of the past. Even the peace treaty that ended the 1860 civil war between the Druze and Maronites stipulated that the past should henceforth be put to rest.
The brief civil war of 1958 was ended under the motto "no victor, no vanquished" and with a general amnesty. There were no plans to investigate the causes of the conflict or attempt to come to terms with the past.
Once again, in 1991, an amnesty law was passed covering all of the war crimes that took place. This form of forgetting by state decree can help ensure the peace in a society wracked by war, civil war, or dictatorship. It often invokes the pathos and the possibility of a fresh start untainted by the past.
Yet, as traumatic events are not addressed by such an approach, their effects remain dormant, but powerful, lying just beneath the surface. They can, to some extent, result in a blind spot with respect to one's own history, which can be passed on from generation to generation.
In his novel "June Rain," Jabbour Douaihy, born in 1949, explores how such suppressed experiences can survive over a long stretch of time and the vehemence with which such traumas can re-emerge after decades of dormancy. The focal point of the novel is a massacre that took place in the late 1950s in a mountain village in north Lebanon. It left some two dozen people dead and many injured, although the incident was never fully explained.
As such, the story told by Douaihy remains qualified throughout. Similar to the now classical civil war novels of Elias Khoury, Douaihy does not offer his readers a true and reliable account of events, but rather competing approximations of history that at times complement each other and, perhaps just as readily, contradict each other.
Elia, the novel's protagonist, sought refuge in New York from the civil war in his home country. After many years, he returns to Lebanon for the first time. He wants to discover the truth behind his father's death, who was killed in the massacre when he was the same age as Elia upon his return to Lebanon. He questions neighbours and eyewitnesses to the events and they cannot or will not reliably recall what took place. "In any case, don't believe everything that you hear" was the advice that they all gave him.
Douaihy explores the theme of recollection, oscillating between various levels of meaning. Memories conflict even over the first breakfast shared by Elia and his mother. "She knew from long ago, before he had left, that he loved pear marmalade. And he had forgotten that he liked to eat it." What can we truly and reliably know about the past when even our memories of everyday banalities, like our own eating preferences, are unreliable?
The many years in America have left Elia feeling estranged in his old homeland. His clothing, his gestures, and even his way of walking have changed. Is he still the same person that he was before he left? What role does the past play in establishing a person's identity?
Like a detective, Elia attempts to reconstruct the history of his father by piecing together the separate details and recording them in his notebook. "Did my father carry a weapon?" is one of the most penetrating and also painful questions, as it deals with the responsibility of his father. Did the events have anything to do with the upcoming election at the time? When did the long family feud begin and what were its causes? What traditions, dispositions, and sensitivities lie behind this bloody deed?
Despite his outward appearance of striving for an accurate and precise account of events, Elia has issues concerning his own personal history. The material he collects in his notepad – we as readers discover – is suspect of being subjective falsification. It turns out that while in America, Elia repeatedly reinvented his biography, not least of all to attract women. He does not feel secure in his own identity and proves to be a virtuoso in the art of self-orientalization, aiming to profit from his exotic eastern background, as when he pretended to be the son of a Yemeni tribal leader or claiming to suffer from an imaginary illness to gain sympathy.
Understandably, the reader gradually grows to distrust this unreliable chronicler.
No right life in falsehood
The massacre in the novel refers to a real-life event. In 1957, a massacre took place in a north Lebanese village and Douaihy's family took part in the tragedy. Douaihy is not interested in providing a historical reconstruction, but rather in telling a story of possibilities and, above all, limits. As an author, he questions the power and function of stories and shows how they arise, while the task of historians is instead to arrive at a presumably "true" account of events and provide them with a sense of meaning.
The novel deals with the power of recollection, the effects of history, and how one must constantly affirm one's own past anew. As arduous as the despondent search for truth by the novel's protagonist – and thereby the search for his own identity – appears to be, the text, in part, lacks stringency as a result of its abundance of detail and its cyclical prose structure. As a result, it sometimes feels as if the storyline could fall apart.
Many passages in Douaihy's novel seem unwieldy, cluttered, and overly ambitious. And many of the topics raised, such as the link between traditional village clan structures and the political ideologies of the time, which so characterized Lebanon in the 1950s and 60s, or the role of the Lebanese Diaspora, remain mere sketches.
"We never come to the end of this story," complains one of the witnesses to Elia. The anxiety stemming from this lack of resolution pervades the whole of Douaihy's novel. His diagnosis, however, is as clear as it is disturbing. There is no one who has not been damaged by these events or whose life path not been deeply scarred. As such, Elia is the Lebanese embodiment of Adorno's dictum that there can be "no right life in falsehood".
© Qantara.de 2012
Jabbour Douaihy: June Rain. The book appears in German under the title "Morgen des Zorns", translated from Arabic to German by Larissa Bender and published by Hanser, Munich, 2012, 350 pages. The English version will be published in February 2013 by Bloomsbury.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de