'As Though She Were Sleeping" is a gentler take on the stories and landscapes that have marked Elias Khoury's powerful and often disturbing work.
Khoury, mentioned in recent years as a contender for literature's Nobel Prize, has set most of his stories in Lebanon and Palestine. His best-known novel, "Gate of the Sun," is a sprawling look at post-1948 Palestine. Khoury is particularly interested in the links between storytelling and trauma: His 2002 novel, "Yalo," foregrounds a rapist's confessions; several of his novels are set during the Lebanese civil war.
Part of the softer tone of "As Though She Were Sleeping" comes from its earlier setting. It begins and ends in December 1947, before the establishment of Israel. It also centers on an apolitical Christian woman from Beirut.
Milia's life has its hardships, certainly, but her traumas are mostly of an ordinary sort. Great changes take place during her lifetime, but Milia says that politics give her a headache. Nazareth "was boiling over, but she [Milia] did not really notice anything out of the ordinary."
The book begins and ends in the fraught Nazareth of 1947, but without emphasizing the city's tensions. Gentle Milia isn't blind; she can see that a tragedy is coming. Yet her focus is on giving birth. She slips in and out of dream-memories as she lies in a hospital bed and pushes out her son.
The book is filtered through this dream state, with Milia reliving and reshaping moments from her past. As in many of Khoury's novels, the narrative barely crosses space or time; we end where we began. The book's UK translator, Humphrey Davies, called "As Though She Were Sleeping" "one of the least linear books ever put down on paper." Instead, the narrative revolves around its core images in ever tighter circles.
The book thus relies on the strength of its carefully crafted, circling sentences. Translator Marilyn Booth does well in rebuilding them in smooth English.
One of the book's unexpected delights is how it details changes in Levantine cuisine, health care and dress. When trousers arrived: "In essence, Beirut experienced its phase of European fashion as though it were a carnival of laughs: men walking with their feet unnaturally far apart, as if every male in the city had suddenly gone lame; endless jokes; and a devastating sense of professional impotence among the traditional tailors who could not accustom themselves to the new style of apparel."
Khoury's 11th novel might not be remembered as one of his core works, like the expansive "Gate of the Sun" or the terrifying "Yalo," but it gives the flavor of a very important novelist's core philosophies and obsessions through a woman's last memories.
M. Lynx Qualey is a Minnesota-born writer who lives in Cairo.