Novelist and critic Elias Khoury

The nightmare of reality

The Lebanese novelist and critic, Elias Khoury, examines the nature of writing in a world rent repeatedly by violence and vicious conflict – and finds hope

I start with a question that I am not sure I can answer, but it's a question that's been troubling me ever since I started to feel that I was living in a mysterious place that lies outside the literary experiences with which, and with whose heroes, I can usually identify. I can trace this back to the beginnings of the Lebanese civil war, when Lebanon's small society exploded due to contradictions that burst its bounds and which it was unable to withstand. So Lebanese society fragmented – and with its fragmentation the dreams generated by literary and political modernity started to collapse.

The shadows of the Lebanese war did not disappear when the end of the war was declared in 1991; in fact the outlook became even more gloomy. It signalled our failure to realise that the Arab countries had been living in a permanent state of disaster since at least 1948, that we were embarked on a disastrous course that still lay ahead of us... and that we finally had to bury our forefathers. We had been living with their corpses, unable to smell them because we had grown so used to the stench of death.

But the question became more problematic when I rediscovered Franz Kafka. Kafka reflects the nightmares of contemporary humanity and his literature is seen as a source of inspiration when exploring the existential isolation of mankind. Re-reading Kafka, however, I was struck by the fact that I could not identify with Kafka's heroes, especially those in ″Metamorphosis and ″The Trial, the literary works that have become symbols for the anguish of modern man.

The crudeness of Kafka's allegory

The more I felt averse to identifying with his heroes, the more my admiration for Kafka's masterly writing and for the magic conjured up by his allegories and metaphors was enhanced. At first I put this aversion down to the crudeness of Kafka's allegory, for even his novel ″The Trial, on which Sonallah Ibrahim drew for his novel ″The Committee, seemed to offer no dialogue with the disintegrating worlds in the midst of which I live, while its own nightmarish world was unable to find a place in the fabric of the relationship between the night dreams and waking dreams that fill my imagination.

I only understood the reason for this aversion when I realised I had lived through successive cycles of consecutive disasters that had now reached their climax in the Syrian disaster – a disaster that has turned us into nations of victims and refugees.

Were I to analyse this aversion, I would be striding into a verbal minefield, since it would be wrong to use the word aversion when describing the writings of Kafka. He is rightly recognised as one of the most important landmarks in modern literature, owing to his ability to exploit allegory and metaphor either as an alternative to reality, or as one of reality's possibilities.

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