John Lanchester

  • Arabesques by Anton Shammas, translated by Vivian Eden
    Viking, 263 pp, £11.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 670 81619 1
  • Blösch by Beat Sterchi, translated by Michael Hofmann
    Faber, 353 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 14934 0
  • A Casual Brutality by Neil Bissoondath
    Bloomsbury, 378 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0252 8

Attentive readers of the Guardian’s news pages will already know about Arabesques. A 1986 report from Jerusalem told readers of a first novel by a 36-year-old writer which was making a big stir: it had already sold 22,000 copies. (An equivalent figure in Britain would be a hardback sale of 270,000.) A very important contributory factor behind the sensation the book was causing was the fact that its author, Anton Shammas, was an Arab writing in Hebrew, his ‘stepmother tongue’. Shammas describes himself as an ‘Israeli Arab’ – an ambiguous, problematic identity which is the subject of his novel.

The early pages of Arabesques invite us to think that the book is closer to autobiography than to fiction: they recount incidents in the family history of the narrator – who shares the same name as the author – and describe the village where the family lives. Fassuta is an Arab village in Galilee, built on the site of the Crusader castle of Fassove which was, in turn, built on the site of the Jewish village of Mifshata. Fassuta – a real place – is now part of Israel, and its Christian inhabitants belong to the 700,000-strong Arab minority inside the 1949 ‘green line’ of the Israeli state. Everyone in Fassuta has a story to tell, and the historical fact of dispossession means that this story is one of the few things they really own; their only inalienable possession is their personal history. Arabesques is dense with these histories, which Shammas has set out to tell on behalf of the people of Fassuta. Not all the stories are sad, but they tend to focus around three periods which were and are unmistakably bitter for the village: the Arab Rebellion of 1936/7, the war of partition in 1947/8, and the present. Family history and the history of the region overlap, and one of the triumphs achieved by Shammas is to show how the large-scale narratives of textbook history are built out of, and at the same time woven into, ordinary lives. 1947, for instance, is remembered in the Shammas family as the year Anton’s father made a doomed attempt to set up in Haifa as a cobbler – a personal humiliation borne on the wings of a political catastrophe for his people.

One of the lessons of the book is that the present is built out of what we know of the past: change what we know and the circumstances of our lives change also. The central narrative impetus of Arabesques starts to emerge when Anton finds out, through a sequence of chance encounters, an important fact about his family past. The dead cousin after whom Anton was named is not dead at all: he was secretly adopted by a childless rich couple and rechristened Michael Abyad; now a doctor, he lives in America and makes occasional visits to Beirut and the Palestinian Centre for Research. A few days after hearing the story Anton sees a magazine picture of a man standing by a bicycle, looking at bodies in the aftermath of the massacre at the Sabra refugee camp: he is Dr Michael Abyad, Anton Shammas’s double and secret namesake.

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