In the first chapter, the narrator says, 'Things have changed.' Two sentences later the words are repeated: 'Things have changed.' The narrator outlines in brief sections the rise and (mostly) the fall of 'Little Mountain', an area of Beirut, Lebanon. Though he is not given a name, the narrator comes across as poor, not very well-educated, and caught within a world of violence and destruction that he does not and cannot understand. Yet his world, like all the worlds in which people find themselves mired, is one that affects him intimately, a world that possesses no ability to care whether or not he is capable of understanding what is happening to himself or his family. This world is war, Beirut's war. Little Mountain, Elias Khoury's second novel and written during the opening years of what would become a fifteen-year civil war, is composed of five chapters and written in five very different voices, each examining the explosion of hope, life, love and death that surrounds the chaos of war.
Things have changed, yes, and not for the better. The narrator of the first chapter describes a scene where soldiers question his mother. This scene is short and violent, and is repeated several times throughout the chapter. Inserted between these repetitions are recollections of the 'Little Mountain' suburb prior to the war. Khoury uses his simple narrator to build up a community before tearing it down. Short, sharp sentences combine to create a sense of urgency, of bewilderment, of death.
The second chapter is broken into 'scenes' and is written from the point of view of a Christian fighter. This narrator, also unnamed, does not analyze his reasons for entering the war, but he is comfortable with the choice he has made. Death, explosions and destruction are commonplace – so common, in fact, that the narrator is able to relate horrific events in a matter-of-fact tone, calm and collected and unsentimental. War is death, death is war, yes – but I still have to eat. I still have to live. I still like seeing pretty girls. That is the impression we are given. Analysis comes later, if it comes at all. For now, when fighting it is enough to stay alive and to talk with friends, and to be happy if you can.
Edward Said, in his introduction to Khoury's novella, compares Khoury's post-modern writings to Naghib Mahfouz's more stately tomes. Mahfouz, thus far the only Arabic Nobel Laureate, was until his death considered the grand old man of Arabic letters, extending the European evolution of the novel into an Arabic context. Khoury, however, is a postmodern fragmentation of voices and events, a scattering, shattered chronicler of times that cannot be expressed within the ordinary trappings of novelistic plot and characterisation. Said is immensely respectful toward Mahfouz, but he also recognizes that some situations require a different level of examination to properly make sense of them – or, in Lebanon's case, where no sense at all can be made, it is enough simply to show the chaos. Khoury and Palestinian authors Ghassan Kanafani and Emile Habibi explain the damage to their countries the only way they know how: through postmodern slices of life, love and death.
The third, fourth and fifth chapters of the novel become progressively more introspective and analytical. Khoury seems to have chosen increasingly intelligent characters to experience the civil war, but this choice has a damaging affect as well as an enlightening one. The greater the introspective ability of his characters, the less real the war seems. It becomes an exercise of the intellect as much as the physical being of the narrators. The first two chapters are astonishingly visceral, almost entirely taken with the physical and the real. The last three are concerned with abstract thought and emotion; some sections hardly refer to the war, as though it is only happening to the fighters and not the citizens.
One introverted character writes,
'I stayed alone, with the sound of the shells and the darkness. I said to myself, I'll sleep in my own bed, it's allright. But the shells whistled as though they were coming out of my ears. I got up and sat in the corridor. I said to myself, I'll sleep sitting up.' In this passage, greater weight is placed upon the character's desire to sleep than his awareness that shells falling means people dying. Compare this to the narrator from the second chapter:
'And then, everything was still. We were at the Bab Idriss intersection. Khaled was killed and three comrades were wounded. It wasn't grief so much as something else.' Where the former narrator was self-absorbed and parenthetical, the latter is Hemingway-esque in his statement of fact. Something happened. Something else happened. Someone died. This is chant, bald statement without the embellishment of intellect. Khoury is showing us that there is no time for intellect during a war, that what is done is what must be done. A friend dies, but tomorrow everyone fights again.
Little Mountain is a mound of fragments that does not coalesce into a whole. It can't, and Khoury has determined that it won't. Rather than write a criticism of the civil war, and rather than append a coda to his novella, Khoury simply shows Lebanon through the eyes of five different men. It is up to the reader to attempt to make sense of what has occurred, to place boundaries around an event that was, for the people involved, incomprehensible. Edward Said's introduction is a marvellous starting point for anyone interested in Arabic literature, a whole field of writing which is almost entirely neglected by the English-speaking world. The notes throughout the novel and the three maps of Lebanon are greatly appreciated in helping to bring this remote place to the attention, and respect, of this reader. Little Mountain is not long, though it demands much. It is not about plot so much as place, not about characters so much as the character of Lebanon itself.