Wednesday, April 19, 2017

kite string

Lebanese author Dominique Eddé's 2003 novel Cerf-volant, translated from French by Ros Schwartz as Kite and published by Calcutta-based Seagull Books in 2012.  (This is the second book I've read by this excellent publisher, the first one was Andrea Brady's Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2013).)

The novel tells, in many short readable chapters by multiple narrators, the story of a love affair between Mali Rashed (née Shami) and Farid Malek. It's also a melancholy, though often comic, portrait of upper-class cultured life in Lebanon and Cairo (and London, Paris, etc) from early in the 20th century up to 2002. Dizzying society gossip, on every topic from the most serious to the most trivial, overwhelms us. It meditates richly on novels, on language (especially French and Arabic), on love, time and memory. The distant connection with Proust is there of course, yet Cerf-volant does not seem very Proustian.

The unfolding history of Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Syria is always in the background and sometimes in the foreground too. (Especially Nasser, the Six-day War, the Lebanese Civil War.)  September 11, al-Qaida and Islamism make it into the last scenes of the book (which are actually nearly at the beginning). It was written before the "Arab Spring", the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi, the endless Syrian War and the punitive bombings of Gaza in 2014, but the seeds of all these events seem to be present in it. There's even a nod at the increasing confidence of the far Right in Europe, in the form of the outspoken yet charming publisher Paul Braque.

Eddé, a distant relative of a Lebanese president back in the 1930s, was born in 1953, so she is around twenty years younger than Mali. It's quite an impressive feat, to lead us through scenes in the life of someone who is this much older than the author. At least so it would be in a thoroughly naturalistic novel. But Cerf-volant is written according to a different theory of time than clock-time.

An early chapter from Cerf-volant / Kite in French / English / Chinese

Here's the English version:

'What is a novel?' Mali asked her students.

It was October 1968, shortly after she and Farid had broken up for the first time. She was teaching French that year at a government school in Beirut. She had been given a class of sixteen-year-olds, about sixty boys, most of whom were behind in their studies and had only a smattering of French since they were sitting their baccalaureate in Arabic. Their replies, hesitant at first, came thick and fast. Mali jotted them down. Running on from each other, they read as follows: the novel's a story that's long and wide; it's life but in a book; it's like my uncle who married my aunt without asking for permission; if you observe life carefully, the novel is all around us; it's a story that has a beginning and no end; it's an Arabian Nights; it's when love is a river that meets a dam; I've got a novel, Miss, it begins with some Russians; the novel is full of things that happen at the same time and we don't know why; a novel is so sad it makes you laugh; well, my father says that our defence minister is a novel all by himself; if a novel begins, there's no more rest, that's it; what happened between Abdo and Mohammed the day before yesterday's a novel; the novel's for the French, we Arabs have poetry; Miss, is my sister's death a novel? everyone has novels, there's no need to die; only Allah writes novels; I want to write a novel about Palestine, so that it stays somewhere.

One boy sitting at the back of the class had said nothing. Gazing out of the window, his arms folded, he looked not so much absent as irritated. Yet he was the only one who spoke French. Mali addressed him. 'Ali, I haven't heard anything from you. What is a novel?' He resisted. She insisted. 'It's a story someone tells,' he replied eventually, 'that's all.' 'Give us an example,' she answered, expecting him to give a book title and the name of an author, but that was not how he understood the question. This is what he replied:

It was a winter's day. The sun came and went. The clouds grew bigger. The whole sky was like a stormy sea. Abu Sami pushed his orange cart shouting,'Ten piastres a kilo!' The street was empty, no one could hear him but he paid no attention. He shouted, 'Ten piastres a kilo!' and dreamt of a woman he loved. The hands on the clock were turning, daylight was fading and the clouds were growing darker and darker still. The rain began to fall, the dust turned to mud and Abu Sami's dream came and went, like the sun, its light vanished, he could hardly see the face of the lady he loved. Abu Sami no longer had the strength to shout,'Ten piastres a kilo!' He trundled behind his orange cart in silence. Several oranges rolled off but he didn't pick them up. Just then, an American car pulled up beside him and a lady sitting in the back wound down her window to buy five kilos of oranges. He put the fifty piastres in his pocket and went home with his oranges. A neighbour was waiting for him on his doorstep. He said, 'I have bad news for you, Abu Sami, the dancer is dead.' The dancer was the woman who had been going round and round in his head while he walked. Her name was Camelia. He'd seen her once at Ain el Mraisseh in a cabaret called Chéri. Only once but he loved her.

'There, that's a novel,' grunted Sami, shrugging his shoulders. And as Mali, smiling, wrote down the closing sentences in a notebook, he added in a more conscious, even solemn, tone, 'Once is enough to kindle a dream and a cloud is enough to snuff it out but, for the person telling the story, the dream and the cloud can last a thousand years. The novel doesn't move like an ordinary watch, its hands can stop for an hour on a minute and for a second on twenty years. It's a machine that can gobble a life in two pages.'



The sleeve, unfolded. It's been composed by taking a commonplace natural scene (I won't guess from which country), and joining it to its mirror image to produce a perfectly symmetrical hump of yellow flowers.  Since the kite-string appears only on the front of the book and not on the reflex image on the back, it stands revealed as having been super-imposed. And closer inspection shows that the "kite-string" is actually a line of black ink, and even has a little break in it.

Both jacket and book-title refer to an image, in the final pages, of the novel as a kite. The image appears in the middle of a long harangue by the Armenian novelist Dance Vavikian, who begins by quoting the Washington Post.

And look at the bottom of the page, I quote, "Yesterday, a young woman was stoned to death for making a paper plane out of a photo of an Imam." For those who don't understand Arabic, a "paper plane" in English is a kite, and what is a kite? First of all, it's the opposite of a statue, it has the right to go in any direction, to fly, to stop, slow down, eagle-dive, sail, change course, somersault, once, twice, three times, stop upside down, soar again and fly off in the sky, while an unseen hand holds the end of its string, that is a kite. It is a paper cloud that crosses borders, blurs them, pushes them back, it is the wandering ghost of all that we have lost as a result of being afraid of everything and accepting everything. The kite is a novel, it goes here and there not knowing where it goes. ...  (p. 298)

Joumana Debs offers a parallel interpretation of the image: the kite (a person's life), controlled by an unseen hand (historical events).

Joumana Debs' essay "Le cerf-volant ou l'évanouissement du rêve arabe",  in Des femmes et de l'écriture. Le bassin méditerranéen (Carmen Boustani and Edmond Jouve, eds). You can read most of it on Google Books:


Or isn't the unseen hand, rather, the novelist's? Dance Vavikian, like Dominique Eddé, is a novelist who writes novels. Mali is a novelist who never writes a novel, though we do get to read her unfinished effort, a chapter or two of her grandmother's life in France.


The framing of life by historical events, the impact of historical events.... Of course these are important themes. Mali is a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, Farid is an activist for the Palestinians. They are politically engaged, but how deeply does this engagement impact their lives? (Even when Farid is shot in the back in Lebanon, he recovers.) Are the ups and downs in Mali's and Farid's love affair really caused by - say - the Six Day War, or are they just coincidental with it? Are Mali's mildly left-wing views skin-deep or are they directly connected with the inner forces that drive her?

In one of the novel's preludes, the characters are milling around on the platform and talking it over. An unspecified speaker asks Farid: "But you, Monsieur Malek, what do you think of a novel that, just when the world is falling apart, hires liveried waiters and English governesses but not a single CIA operative, no al-Qaida members, not a Russian, not a Chechen?"


Interview with Dominique Eddé in Le Monde  (in French):


Lebanon is a nation of many languages. Because of the civil war, many younger Lebanese writers were displaced and began to write in English. Syrine Hout's book Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction introduces the topic.


Article in the Independent (June 2016) about the controversy caused by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's appearance on Israeli media. Quotes Dominique Eddé at one point.


Dominique Eddé, from a promotion of her 2012 novel Kamal Jann
[Image source:]



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