Angel or a Demon?
A review By Mohammed Alloutt
When over a year and half ago we presented novelist Adel Bishtawi as a distinguished writer our judgment stemmed from a solid conviction, especially following the publication of his fourth literary accomplishment, “Traces of a Tattoo” (1988). The novel has since been celebrated by the Arab critics in magazine and newspaper articles and has become, in record time, a subject of literary criticism studies at the English University.
The publication (1999) of his second recent novel, “Times of Death and Roses,” is no surprise to us. Nor is it a surprise that the second should surpass the first in its length (553 pages), the beauty of writing as a craft and a creation, or the choice of subject which is human by excellence as it investigates the possibility or otherwise of the existence of love in times of war, horror and death.
It is a novel that, like its precedent, searches for the glowing pulse of life in a macabre atmosphere of despair and senseless killing; the dramatization of suffering at a time when the betting on the future seeks fulfilment and a way out of the circle of dreams; the dramatization of human beings whose memories are heavily-cracked and whose souls are inhabited by fear and the ghosts of death.
We have to presume that it is an entertaining novel. But the entertainment therein does not render itself completely to the reader until the latter has exercised patience over a narrative whose basic foundation is not a simple, superficial device of straightforwardly narrating events but two distinctive literary techniques. These are: the interior monologue and the dialogue. The former, whose single exercise may stretch over an entire chapter, invokes the style of Marcel Brust in “In Search of the Lost Time,” or the unique literary device of “stream of consciousness” whose proponents include Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner and Thomas Mann.
Furthermore, the reader finds himself drawn into realms of stylistic and eloquent exercises where the metaphor is a basic element. The reader has no choice, at times, except to venture into interpreting such metaphors by relying on the general meaning of the text. Some examples that need metaphorical interpretation are the “Sea,” the “Goblin,” the “Demon.”
“Times of Death and Roses” is a complex literary work entertaining a simple plot that may be well served by a short story of several pages. But the writer is more interested in the inner lives of his characters than in the intricacies of the plot (we are coming to that shortly). There is no need to sum up the modern plot. It would suffice to note that the novel as a whole is built on two events, namely, war and love. In the course of action, the original duality of war and love begets a series of antitheses: existence vs. non-existence; life vs. death; the possible vs. the impossible; affirmation vs. negation; past vs. present; presence vs. absence.
A passionate, extremely romatic love story evolving on the backdrop of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the novel poses problematic questions: can love and life exist in times of destruction and death? Could a rose blossom in a soil infected by mines? Could the angels spread their white wings in an age of air bombing, demons, and senseless killing?
Rana, Ali and Elie
The chief characters of Times of Death and Roses are: “Rana,” “Ali,” and “Elie” – a trio joined together by a single love story. Rana is infatuated with love for her angle, Ali. But she is also attached to Elie who victimizes her and, consequently, becomes a demon. At a personal level, Rana suffers the dilemma of being forced to choose between an angel and a demon. Her personal conflict, which has many overtones – psychological, spiritual, religious, social and political – reduces the novel into a dramatization of the ever-lasting, mythical struggle between good and evil.
But although Rana’s internal conflict is a focal point, the novel’s actual boundaries extend limitlessly as it reads into the current Arab reality. Firstly, the novel depicts the horrible, disgusting acts of aggression and cases of rape committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians. It moves on to depict life in the Palestinian military bases and the refugee camps. Thirdly, it comments on the Palestinian resistance movement as it becomes an institution and loses its human connotation.
The full weight of the events with their bloody ugliness is reflected in the personal fate of Ali’s close friend, Maher, before it turns into fits of despair which attack Ali whenever he remembered his days at the military base, the death of his friend, Maher, the death of his brother and baby-sister in one of the many massacres committed by the Israeli soldiers and, finally, the heavy loss of his beloved, Fatina- his childhood friend and future dream- in the madness of hostilities.
The overall tragedy is also personalized in Rana herself. She comes to Beirut to pursue her university studies but the hostilities steal the dreams and roses she has spent a life watering in the secret gardens of her heart. The cost she has to pay is her first love, Ali. She also finds herself entangled by the demonic web of Elie, the head of a private gang of outlaws which reduces human values into a criminal wave of killings and torture, individual and collective. As the writer carries the repercussions of the events on the inner lives of his characters, thus Rana is shown torn between a desire to turn Elie into an angel so that life could become possible for everybody and a conflicting desire to win the heart of the angel Ali so that they could join forces in the fight against crime.
Apart from the three principal characters, the novel’s fabric does not become complete except with the necessary presence of the secondary characters. These act as assistants or, (according to Mr. Probe in his study of folk tales) obstructive factors, for or against the universal desire in seeing good win over evil, or vice versa. Of the secondary characters we may mention Maher, Katia, Rama, Fatina, Rana’s parents, Fatina’s husband (Ahmed,) Rasha the child and Omar. However, the question of the secondary characters is important in as much as the affirmation of their presence bring us closer to the principal characters, not farther.
The Individual and the Cause
The writer is profoundly keen to underline the difference between the Palestinian as an individual and as a Cause. He wants to show how political commitment may turn into a heavy and destructive human burden. Ali says of his niece Fatinah,” It is true that Fatinah is a Palestinian but she is in the end a woman and needs to marry the man not the Cause. She wants to have children, her own, not the orphans of the Cause.” (P 21) But drawing the line between the individual and the Cause does not amount to a declaration of “escape” from the inevitable confrontation. Hence the angry, defiant and painful note the writer uses in speaking of the Palestinian people: “How many massacres are we to endure, ‘ Ali shouted at the top of his mouth as he ran by the fence, ‘How many massacres are we to endure before this nation raises hands trembling with anger, despair and the desire for revenge and shouts: Now, I want blood, now. How many times are we to hear: This is the last massacre but always turns out to the one before the last? How many massacres the homeland of massacres is going to endure? How many female babies are you going to rape? How many kids are you going to butcher? How many pregnant bellies are you going to open? How many boys are you going to force in line before you point your guns at their foreheads one after the other? How many bombs are going to explode and how many bullets to be fired before the nation raises her hands and shouts: Damn you all, you bastards! From now on I no longer need any of you.” (P 49)
In times of Palestinian despair, when the executed becomes the executioner, we find the novelist asserting that victory lies in survival, in betting on the future, on continuing the struggle. One of the secondary characters, “Boubou”, says to Ali,” You’re a friend so I’ll tell you. But I’ll whisper it into your ear lest somebody hears us. My gun of last resort is not here (the military base). My final gun is at home. It is my wife. In circumstances such as these it is not possible to fight death with death. We wont succeed. Instead, I’ll fight death with life. I’ve four children. I want six more, half for me and half for them and we shall see who survives in the end. (P 63)
In times of death and internal conflict in Lebanon, non-existence becomes existence; life becomes impossible and man dies standing; dies from despair and loneliness. Lost at sea, having fled the hell of the military base, Ali cries out,” Why are we here? Why are we alone in a lonely planet, in a lonely space, why?” (P85). But the novel’s characters remain alive. In an interior monologue, Ali says,” The time of death has gone but it still hangs there in the horizon. This I know because I sometimes hear it calling out in the darkness. I do not want it. I want someone to pull me away from it…The time of roses has not started yet. I know that its breeze floats nearby. I raise my nose in its direction and empty my lungs. I search for it at night, at dawn and at sea and in the faces of all those I see, but I still can’t find it. I want someone to keep reminding me of it, to drag me, push me towards it. If this someone does not succeed in the beginning, I will not complain because I know I’m being pulled away from the time of death. And this is good enough.” (P 272)
Rana and Ali are a common fate; two faces of a coin, a love story which bets on life and the future. In the end, each comes out having achieved victory over a broken, horribly damaged self. They both emerge from the darkness of despair and death, each carrying a rose for those to come. They have together achieved victory. The novel concludes with their passionate love tying them together for eternity. It is a happy ending which seeks to demonstrate that there is something in life worth struggling for. But victory comes when the characters bet on what is eternal and ultimate: love, humanity and goodness. Likewise, defeat and humiliation come when we engage in futile battles whose sole objective is to win selfish gains, negate the other, or collaborate with the demon for a trivial benefit.
Although “Times of Death and Roses” focuses on the tragedy of the current Palestinian reality in particular, yet the writer has succeeded in making us feel that what he meant by his novel is humanity at large. He is helped in that by his acute observation and preference for the universal. Everything in the book is singular in the plural tense. We may say that it is a book on Palestine. So what? It is a novel about man everywhere and at all times. The writer targets us all.
The last page is an ending and a beginning at the same time because the novel bets on renewed birth only to tell us that love is the beginning and end of any human relationship. It is love that gives life and negates death. It is love that makes us utter the cry of joy the baby utters as he emerges from the darkness of the womb. It is love which makes us hold the roses but not feel the pain of the thorns cutting into our hand and veins that pulsate with a deep love of life, a hand of good luck extending into eternity.
Published by Sahra Newspaper (Casablanca, Moroccan) on 01 June 1999, and translated by Mohamed Khaled.