Gate of the Sun, Elias Khoury, Archipelago Books, 2006, 539 pp
(Translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, first published as Bab al-Shams, Beirut, 1998)
Elias Khoury was born in Beirut in 1948 so he grew up in the midst of the long Israeli conflict. In this extremely moving and challenging book, he gives the Palestinian side of the story. I am not aware of any other fiction written in or translated into English that has done so. As in other translated literature, I found reading it slow going. The storytelling was like an Indian raga, circling round and round a repeating theme, speeding up and slowing down.
Two men are holed up in a makeshift hospital which is fairly well deserted, inside a refugee camp outside Beirut. Yunes, a leader of the Palestinian resistance is in a coma from a stroke. He is being cared for by Khalil, a poorly trained doctor, who reveres Yunes and hopes to bring the man out of his coma by talking to him. Khalil was born in the camps and as he tells the story of Palestinians expelled from the villages in Galilee, he seeks to make sense of what has happened to their country.
This is the story of the 20th century on Earth. War, death, clash of cultures, displaced peoples and political confusion. In Gate of the Sun, that story is made intimate and personal, showing how men, women, children, families and villages are affected; showing the utter disruption of love, religion, daily life and tradition.
I felt at the end of the book that Khoury had lifted this horror above and out of any political polemics and given us a look at what we humans do to each other. He shows how useless, sorrowful and destructive it is and also how individuals continue anyway to create life and community. Quite an achievement.