As Though She Were Sleeping, Elias Khoury, Archipelago Books, 2012, 372 pp
In 2006, I read Elias Khoury's The Gate of the Sun and was spirited away to the "other side" of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Of all the books I read that year, it stood out as a beacon to understanding the Other and worked on me like a journey through another culture.
As Though She Were Sleeping is a journey of an entirely different order. Milia has just been married to Mansour when the story opens. She and her new husband are traveling by car from her Lebanese home town toward their honeymoon hotel in the mountains. Surrounded by fog and cold snow, Milia huddles in the backseat as Mansour walks ahead with a candle trying to light the way for the driver. Already Milia is sleeping and dreaming. She cries out to the Mother of God and the fog lifts.
It is 1946 when Milia settles with Mansour in Nazareth where she conceives her first child. She spends much of her time sleeping and dreaming while Mansour recites poetry to her. He makes love to her while she sleeps. The story of this couple's first year of marriage is the real time of the novel, but the dream time encompasses the history of Syria, the history of both families, and a biblical history of Arabic Christianity. Dream stories and poetry swirl like the fog in the opening scenes, creating an effect both cinematic and phantasmagoric.
I am trying to put into words the experience of reading Elias Khoury's novel. He is a magician with words; his translator is privy to the magic; I cannot do him justice. How did he take the erotic awakening of a young woman, the Christian faith in all it Eastern Orthodox alchemy of history and myth, as well as the complex trauma of extended families and weave it into such a fine and exotic tapestry? How does he know so intimately the heart and body of a young pregnant woman?
Milia dreams her past, her present, and her future, diffusing and recombining the political and economic tensions of the outside world. It takes half the book for the labor of delivering her baby to pass and truly, for a woman labor seems endless and outside of time. Milia labors just as diligently in her dreams to bring her past into focus and to divine the future of her child.
When I awoke at the end from the dream of the book, I was in a sort of saint-like ecstasy. I only wanted to return to the dream and stay with Milia, Mansour, and their people.
(As Though She Were Sleeping is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)