Anton Shammas is a Christian Arab born in the Galilee who has written his first novel in Hebrew. Defining himself not just legally but also culturally as an Israeli, he has said that the book is his “real identity card”—though a careful reading of Arabesques may persuade one that this identity card is not so readily decipherable: it contains a good share of ambiguities. Qualified Hebrew readers, while admiring Shammas’s feat, report that in the original his style is somewhat ornate; but if so, the translator has nicely chastened the prose into workable English. Unavoidably Arabesques raises some irksome though deeply interesting questions about Israeli literature, what it is and should be. Insofar as Shammas’s novel suggests a “larger” cultural significance, it is that a complex syncretism, ranging from Bialystok to the Galilee, seems to be evolving in Israeli literature.
Shammas evokes traditional Arab life as well as, more uneasily and obliquely, the political sensibilities of contemporary Arab intellectuals. The strongest parts of the novel, the beginning and the end, are set in the Catholic Arab village of Fassuta in the Galilee, a place that is laden with historical associations: “Our village is built on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Fassove, which was built on the ruins of Mifshata, the Jewish village that had been settled after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Harim, a group of deviant priests.” This seemingly innocent sentence introduces what will be one of Shammas’s subthemes, modestly and calmly suggested: the deep entanglement of Jewish and Arab claims and traditions in his homeland.
The novel’s title, apart from its possible pun, is also apt, with its evocations of brevity and decorativeness, both of which are features of Shammas’s storytelling. Quick “takes” or narrative segments cut across time and place to create the kinds of juxtapositions Faulkner has made familiar, while common objects—a key, a cookie jar, a barber’s chair—serve as emblematic links between narrative segments in a faintly Proustian way. Still another possible influence is Marquez, who seems visible in Shammas’s effort to lift village detail above the ordinary, endowing it with a historical, sometimes a “magical” dimension. But if Shammas has borrowed, he has made such devices his own, for he is a canny writer, mixing oral storytelling with modernist sophistication, or at least placing them in close relation. And he has the considerable advantage that the life he portrays is unfamiliar to most American readers, including those who may have read a few Israeli novels in which Arabs appear as shadowy “others.” Arabesques really brings, as novels were once supposed to bring, “news” from elsewhere.
There are bright, sometimes glittering little portraits of the customs and manners of Fassuta’s inhabitants over the past seventy-five years, quick and at times deliberately “torn” snapshots of family and clan. Shammas seems entirely aware of the dangers of “local color,” the irritating possibility that his book might move Israeli Jewish and American liberal readers to a kindly condescension. But this danger is largely, if not entirely, avoided through Shammas’s narrative voice. He is blessed with a good supply of charm; he uses humor to keep events at a distance; and he launches occasional thrusts against the dominant Israeli power. The thrusts seem only natural in an Arab writer, and Shammas’s seldom are tainted by standard ideology; the humor is easy to take and to like; but the charm can make one a bit nervous, since modern readers, trained to suspect charm, may wonder whether a writer endowed with it is trying to slip something past them. But after a while, say the first ten pages, I found myself happily yielding to Shammas’s charm, first because it is so genuinely good-spirited and affectionate and second because it serves him as a way not only to approach but also to put himself apart from the communal life he remembers. Behind the charm lie the Arab Revolt of 1936 and the Palestinian movement of today, not as slogans but as felt actualities. On Shammas’s roof there are no fiddlers.
The opening chapters introduce a series of neatly sketched people who neither require nor receive sustained characterization. Shammas evokes them by showing their typical gestures and concerns and the patterns of their relationships. With very little description he is able to suggest how Grandmother Alia, a tough old bird, copes with the wanderlust (due, she says, to “a wrinkle in the mind”) of her husband, who leaves for Brazil, and her son; how the young woman Laylah Khoury leaves Fassuta to end up many years later on the West Bank, a convert to Islam and entangled through marriage with the PLO; how Uncle Yusef serves as a mentor for the narrator, sometimes telling stories but sometimes suggesting that “it is better for a story not to be told, for once it is, it is like a gate that has been left ajar.”
Such figures are quickly drawn, through vignettes and anecdotes. Here Shammas is at his best: he is secure in his knowledge of Fassuta, at ease with memories, luring us to savor the past. Though he is also working toward a larger thematic end, I found myself reading these early chapters for the sheer pleasure of encountering the people in his village. These days such fictional representation may not be highly regarded, but to lose one’s appetite for it is to lose the appetite for literature and perhaps life as well.
In its entirety Arabesques seems to follow the pattern of the Bildungsroman—and here there are problems. The pattern is familiar enough: a young man, educated into discomfort with his origins, leaves his town or village, comes to the metropolis to experience money, women, and dissoluteness, and then, sadder, perhaps wiser, returns home. Balzac used this scheme, though with a clever twist at the end, in Lost Illusions; Dickens adapted it for Great Expectations; Balanchine transposed it into the brilliant movements of Prodigal Son. But it does not quite work in Arabesques as Shammas moves his central character, also named Anton Shammas, from Fassuta to Paris and Iowa City. It does not work for two reasons.
First, the hero of Arabesques finds Paris disabling; he feels lost and confused there, as if all the problems of his life in Israel were still besetting him. Paris cannot be for him the glorious temptation it was for characters in Balzac and James, so that the city as place and idea fails to become the expected strong contrast to Fassuta. Once the fictional Anton Shammas arrives in Iowa City to join an international writer’s conference, the prose turns soft: we hear rather too much about the cordiality of director Paul Engel and the togetherness, if also the tensions, of the participants. What the scheme of the novel seems to require as a moment of drama turns out to be rather flat.
But suppose the idea that Arabesques is a Bildungsroman is false, too hastily picked up by this reader; suppose that Shammas means to suggest that, given his background and origins, his protagonist cannot easily manage the journey. Then, presumably, we should dispense with the kind of expectations raised by the scheme of the Bildungsroman. But that, alas, doesn’t help the book very much, since at least for me, the segments dealing with Paris and Iowa City continue to be weak, certainly inferior to those set in the Galilee and the West Bank.
Because of these thematic and structural problems, Shammas’s effort to build a complex narrative of suspense—one that leads to the discovery of Laylah Khoury in the West Bank and an encounter in Iowa City with a lost cousin who has become a spokesman for the Palestinian movement—doesn’t have quite the impact it should have. I take it that the encounter with Anton’s cousin, a more militant Arab double, is meant to carry some political implications, filling out, so to say, the author’s “identity card.” But it lacks the ease and persuasiveness of the chapters in which Shammas writes about his village; indeed, it seems willed. At least in literature, militancy can rarely compete with memory.
Shammas excels with the vignette and the anecdote. As in the fiction of writers as different as Leskov, Sholom Aleichem, and Silone, the anecdote serves as a basic unit of narrative. It becomes for Shammas a kernel of received wisdom, a stripped essence of collective memory, a last gesture of the downtrodden. Quick and intuitive, fixed on particulars, sly and sometimes wise, the anecdote can bring everything together, an entire way of life.
When Uncle Jiryes decides to leave Fassuta and travel to South America, his mother, Grandmother Alia (who had failed while nursing him “to infuse his body with that serenity which comes from staying home”), grows desperate. She tells him “of how much she had suffered when she nursed him, only to have given him of her milk in vain.” At this point the anecdote takes on a deadpan literalism:
My uncle then calculated that the quantity of milk he had suckled from my grandmother was the equivalent of two dairy cans. About a week before his departure, he got up very early one morning, untied Uncle Yusef’s donkey and set out with it for the village. An hour later, the donkey came back alone, bearing two dairy cans of milk. My grandmother covered her face with her head scarf and said nothing.
This lovely little story could only be spoiled by exegesis. But let me note a prelude and postlude to it. Three pages before the anecdote we learn that many years later Grandmother Alia “preserved [her son Jiryes] in her mind by telling a story about two dairy cans of milk he had once brought her, which always made her laugh so that she would have to hide her face behind her head scarf.” If the head scarf implies sadness in the anecdote, the earlier passage shows time turning sadness into amusement. But then, to give things still another turn, we read a bit after the anecdote that forty years later Jiryes’s younger sister would say: ” ‘My dear brother Jiryes, as you lay on your deathbed [in a distant land], was there no one near you to give you a glass of water?”
There are other such moments. Early in the novel we read that in October 1936, the time of the Arab Revolt, “in my father’s barbershop in the village of Fassuta, a man sat down, gave himself up to the pleasure of a shave…[but] just as my father finished lathering the man’s face, his bloodshot eyes snapped open” and he saw three white horses in the street. Grabbing his rifle, the man fled. A dozen pages later, in a vignette set in 1948, Anton meets an old man who asks him and his brother, “Whose sons are you?” When they answer, he says: “Tell your father that Abdallah Al-Asbah sends his greetings, and that he still owes me half a shave.” A few paragraphs later the chapter ends with the remark that Laylah Khoury married “the son of one of the heroes of the Arab rebellion, whose name was Abdallah Al-Asbah.”
Where Anton Shammas will go from here as a writer, whether in Hebrew or Arabic, it is hard to know. But his book has already added something notable to Israeli literature.
April 14, 1988