Arabesques (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
According to common wisdom, most first novels are autobiographies in disguise. Arabesques, however, the first novel of Anton Shammas, a Christian Arab reared in Israeli-occupied Palestine, goes against the grain, for it is clearly a fiction—a patchwork quilt of legend, fact, fantasy, and history—which proclaims its heterogeneous status as both autobiography and novel. As its punning title indicates, Arabesques is a labyrinthine design that weaves together the disparate, somewhat inchoate stories and memories of the inhabitants of Fassuta, a village “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.” The mixed origins of Fassuta are reflected in the lives of its people, especially that of the author, who, by recounting his personal past and the more comprehensive legendary past of the village, is attempting to construct an identity in a world where national boundaries and political affiliations constrain selfhood to a singular, geopolitical dimension.
In a form of resistance to that singularity, Shammas constructs Arabesques as a pastiche of stories and styles that defies easy classification, just as the “self” which he discovers through writing defies identification. The novel may be viewed variously as a family romance, an example of magical realism, a mystery story, an autobiography, an oral history, or a reflection upon the act of storytelling itself. Indeed, the mode of storytelling that the author learns from his Uncle Yusef and employs in this novel delineates a way of knowing that lies somewhere between empirical fact and the fantastic extrapolations of legend:His stories were plaited into one another, embracing and parting, twisting and twining in the infinite arabesque of memory. . . . All of them . . . flowed around him in a swirling current of illusion that linked beginnings to endings, the inner to the external, the reality to the tale.
Thus, weaving, spinning, and quilting become the metaphors Shammas uses to explain the ways in which he reconstructs the past, not by representing it as a linear story containing sequential events and operating upon the principles of cause and effect, but by conceiving it as a repository of fragmentary memories, events, and bits of story which the narrator pieces together, almost by accident.
Yet what may appear to be a life and story guided solely by the capriciousness of the storyteller’s imagination and the accidents of fate becomes, as the novel progresses, an “arabesque,” a perceptible design which conveys its own kind of order in its interlacings, exfoliations, and repetitions. For example, there is the story of a treasure buried in a cave sealed beneath a huge, mysterious boulder that reflects moonlight. The cave is guarded by the mythical Ar-Rasad, a demonic rooster that the narrator compares to the cock that the Apostle Peter heard after he had thrice denied Christ. The image of Ar-Rasad standing watch over the treasure recurs frequently in the novel; the buried object becomes a figure for the narrator’s own concealed identity and his attempt to liberate it by digging up the past. In the end, the boulder is dynamited by a Jewish engineer to make way for Uncle Yusef’s grandson’s new house. The debris of the explosion include no treasure, but in the sky a crowd observes “a crimson feather, turn[ing] round and round.” Similar repetitions of image and event—the memory of Anton’s father shaving the face of an Arab rebel in his barbershop, an amulet which supposedly contains the secret to the buried treasure, a deep cistern into which the author has been lowered as a child—transform the shards and loose threads of the narrative into a skein of interconnected stories, images, and relationships. In this sense, Arabesques is a symbolic novel that conveys the sense, if not the fact, of the author’s successful reconstruction of the past.
As with any story about buried treasure, at the heart of this novel there is a mystery, and the narrator anxiously pursues its solution with the knowledge that whatever he discovers will provide the key to his identity as a storyteller and a historical being living at the intersection of political crossroads. Throughout the novel, twinnings and doublings recur with almost as much frequency as...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)
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