If you leave aside its modern setting, Rabai al-Madhoun’s new novel would read as a tale out of the 1001 Nights. There is a narrator, not always reliable and often mischievously determined to put us on the wrong track, relating a story of love and separation. But then, we also have other tales nested within the broader narrative, like so many Russian Matryushka dolls. Without knowing it at first, we are taken for a ride in a fantasy world where Shahrzad would have felt at home.
On the surface, the story is about a Palestinian author, now in exile in Britain, telling the story of another Palestinian exile, this one an accountant in Germany, who returns to Gaza to look for a girl he once loved 30 years earlier. During those three decades the beloved is married to her cousin, while the smitten accountant takes a German wife and supposedly settles down to a comfortable middle class life in the West. After a decade of marriage, both former lovers lose their respective partners. The girl left behind in Gaza becomes a widow when an Israeli sniper kills her husband. The lovelorn accountant experiences the more mundane crucible of a Western European divorce.
The novelist working on this apparently banal tale of love and separation, sees the whole episode as a scene from the Chinese theatre of shadows. This is perhaps why the novel he is supposed to be writing bears the title of “Land of Shadows.” It is, perhaps, to inject a dose of reality into his tale that the novelist decides to step into the world of shadows by embarking on his own trip to Gaza after almost four decades of exile. This leads to a fantastic reversal of roles between the novelist and his hero. On his way to Gaza, the novelist meets an Israeli actress who tells that she is the holder of a secret about the son of a prominent Arab leader. Suddenly we are propelled on a third trajectory from fantasy to reality. In Gaza the shadows come to life, perhaps a metaphor for the Palestinians’ dream of one day returning to their homeland, leaving behind the unreal life of exile.
Apart from telling his hero’s story, the novelist succeeds in leading him to his lost life. In other words, the novelist not only writes about what might be reality but also actually creates reality.
Back in London, his mission apparently complete, the novelist receives a phone call from the actress, demanding a meeting during which she promises to reveal her “secret.” Our appetites whetted, we wait for the meeting. But this never happens. The novelist disappears on his way to the meeting.
At one level, Madhoun’s new novel may reads like an Arab exercise in the style of the French nouveau-roman (new novels), fashionable in the 1960s. The games that Madhoun plays with the concept of time, reminds the reader of Michel Butor. And, the eerie atmosphere of reality interacting with unreality recalls the best of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Nevertheless, the novel’s tone of bitter nostalgia and its constant play with the chiaroscuro of loss and recovery distinctly mark it out from the clinical coldness of the nouveau-roman.
The most remarkable feature of Madhoun’s novel, at least for this reader, is his success in showing that, whether they like it or not, Palestinians and Israelis now share a single landscape in their supposedly mutually exclusive existential realities. By spreading the events of the novel, and the novel within the novel, in two continents and several countries, Madhoun broadens his horizon beyond he narrow confines of Israel-Palestine and the bitter struggle that has written its recent history in blood and tears. The reader is transported beyond the Manichaean narrative in which the Palestinian is the victim and the Israeli the oppressor. Is it not possible that both are victims of larger forces in history that we, lesser mortals, find hard to identify? Or, what if they both are authors of their own tragedies?
Many readers may not find it necessary to concern themselves with such political and/or philosophical musings. They would be content with a story well told and a narrative as griping as a well-made thriller.
Madhoun’s new novel is shorter, and yet denser, than his previous autobiographical novel, “A Taste of Separation” published eight years ago. ” The Lady from Tel Aviv” shows that Madhoun, now in his mid-60s is at the height of his narrative abilities.
“The Lady from Tel Aviv” is full of laughs and tears. It is also a joy to read.