|Another war memoir, another sob story
|Alexandre Najjar's new book 'The School of War' loses the plot in a cloud of nostalgia and pathos
The first book by Lebanese novelist Alexandre Najjar to be translated into English is spare and slim. "The School of War" - which is being published next month by Telegram, the new fiction and "international writing" imprint of Saqi Books - is just 120 pages, bracketed by a prologue and epilogue. Even at that, the book feels uncomfortably stretched.
A year shy of 40, Najjar is a lawyer and literary critic as well as a writer. On occasion, he has served as an advisor to Lebanon's Ministry of Culture. He has published historical novels, poems and a biography of Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has won a smattering of literary prizes. According to the jacket copy for "The School of War," he is considered to be among the best of the country's novelists - though not, one hopes, on the basis of this particular book, which should not, and could not, call itself a novel.
"The School of War" unfolds as a series of vignettes about a young man who was a tender eight-year-old when Lebanon's Civil War broke out and a jaded 23-year-old when it ended. First published in French in 1999, the book is written from the perspective of its protagonist returning to Lebanon after seven years of voluntary exile.
With a French friend named Francoise, who is never much more than a name on the page, the narrator starts reminiscing in bite-size prose pieces. Reading through his recollections is rather like getting cornered in a bar by someone who never stops talking and insists, despite overtures of false modesty, that you listen to his or her litany of inane, incessant anecdotes and observations.
"The School of War" opens with a zinger: "All wars are alike. What I experienced in Lebanon, others experienced in France, in Spain, in Yugoslavia or elsewhere. Yes, all wars are alike, because while weapons change, the men who wage and are subjected to war do not in the least."
Moving along, Najjar explains that he "had frequented the war like one frequents a lady of the night, had drained my cup to the last dregs." Then, having also drained a few
cliches, he evokes, of all people, the granddaddy of rough-and-tumble war reporting, Ernest Hemingway. "Hemingway said that 'any war experience is priceless for a writer.' I would like to believe that." Yes, lovely, but must we believe it here and on the evidence of this book?
The trouble with "The School of War" is that it is a modest, meandering memoir arriving late to the canon of Lebanese literature, which is already crowded with examples (a few of them brilliant) of the memoir's tougher, more ambitious and quite often more brutal older brother, the novel.
If one has never read a book about the experiences of living through war, whether in Lebanon or elsewhere, one might find scenes from Najjar's memoir charming, even poignant - the home-schooling his mother undertook to educate him when his school closed due to fighting, the bullet still lodged in his chest after he was shot through the back of a bus seat, the dramatic journeys he took from East Beirut to West with a Whiskey-swigging taxi driver so he could see his girlfriend.
To be fair, "The School of War" affords a rationing of choice details - the safety pamphlet passed out to students to help them avoid getting shelled, which turns out to be a relic from the days when Vichy France was in retreat; the post-war incident in which the protagonist is rattled by an explosion, which turns out to be a stunt on a film set for a Bulgarian director who is making a movie about the war; the narrator's encounter with his favorite taxi driver who has become an arms dealer of sorts and gives the boy a grenade, which (yes, the narrative depends entirely on this formula of flipped expectations) turns out to be a cigarette lighter.
However, when compared to the substantial sub-genre of Lebanese literature that is the Civil War novel, Najjar's book is remarkably thin. As a memoir, it has no veneer of fiction, no skin of craft. It doesn't hold up, not even remotely, next to the work of Elias Khoury, Rashid al-Daif or Hoda Barakat. It doesn't aspire to structure or form. It doesn't endeavor to experiment with language. It doesn't attempt to push beneath everyday details. Simply put, it just doesn't try. It substitutes pathos and nostalgia for the work, the labor, the sweat, the imagination of literature.
When the narrator asks his mother why she used to tell him and his family that the bombings besieging Beirut were fireworks, she says, "I didn't want to traumatize all of you."
"So you lied to us," he replies.
"It was a 'white lie,'" she says. "I twisted reality to delude your fear."
A "white lie"? This is "bad writing."
The artist Robert Rauschenberg once said that "narrative is the sex of art" and it is perhaps because there is no actual, tangible story coursing through "The School of War" that it reads so, well, limply. The protagonist who risks his life to cross the green line, for example, never gets into what happens on the other side when he finds his girlfriend. Instead, the reader is subjected to her letters, replete with such lines as "You must be strong, my love. You must resist. We too are resistance fighters, in our own way. If war is the enemy of love, then we will be Resistance fighters of love!" Oh dear, oh dear.
Even if one sets "The School of War" alongside other memoirs, it still falls short.
Consider Yussef Bazi's "Yasser Arafat Looked at Me and Smiled: Diary of a Fighter," published in English translation last year. The set-up is the same - a series of vignettes relating personal experiences in the context of political conflict. Yet Bazi actually makes something of his material. Perhaps it is more interesting simply because his is not a series of bland fables told by an innocent bystander and victim but rather the complicated stories of someone who fought, who chose sides, who committed crimes. Bazi manages to disturb his readers. Najjar keeps the emotional heart rate of his writing at a lifeless flatline.
"There is an irony which usually defeats the memoir and makes it an inferior art," wrote Norman Mailer in 1963. "The man who can tell a good story in company about his friends is usually not able to find a prose which can capture the nuances of his voice. Invariably, the language is leached out - the account tends to have a droning episodic quality as if some movie queen were recounting the separate toils of her lovers to a tape recorder." By the final pages of "The School of War," the ramblings of an aging, demented, self-absorbed and desperate screen siren would actually be preferable.
Alexandre Najjar's "School of War" is being published in June by Telegram Books
The Daily Star