ABSTRACT

The post-war tension surrounding the impulse to recover or reassemble the past and the individual’s incapacity to recreate it is embodied in Lebanese author Elias Khoury’s character of the ‘Storyteller’ in his novel Mamlakat al-Ghurabaʾ (The Kingdom of Strangers). The Storyteller weaves and reworks the lives of others through disjointed narratives which ‘transform the past into the present’ in an attempt ‘to impose order on a land in which all order has been smashed to pieces.’ Yet he also must acknowledge that through the act of narration he has become complicit in the process: ‘You are the storyteller, she said. No. I am the Story’ (Khoury 1996: 5-7). The challenge of distinguishing teller from tale, truth (al-haqiqa) from story (al-hikaya), distorted memory from actual experience, is a recurrent theme of contemporary Lebanese literature. It is also reflective of Lebanon’s postmemory condition. Like Khoury’s Storyteller, Lebanese youth are similarly entwined in the narrative process itself – imbibing and transforming family stories and local histories to affirm social identities, political discourses and temporal continuities. This act of narrative emplotment, a grasping together of discordant events, actors and interactions into an ordered coherent story perhaps can be understood as a way of providing historic meaning and purpose for the lived present. According to literary critic, Hayden White, emplotment is not merely concerned with ordering a disordered universe, but also with establishing the chronological progression and ‘followability’ of a story, which direct it towards a conclusive ending. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur refers to this as an inversion of the natural order of time: ‘In reading the ending in the beginning and the beginning in the ending, we also learn to read time backwards, as the recapitulation of the initial conditions of a course of action in its terminal consequence’ (1984: 67-68). German sociologist Christopher Bollas terms this process Nachträglichkeit or ‘afterwardsness’, emphasising the simultaneous process of historic retrieval and reinvention:

Historical construction collects in order to retrieve the self from its many meaningless deaths . . . and then it generatively destroys those details and saturates them with new meaning created through the very act of retrieval,

which has given them the imaginative and symbolic energy to make the past available for the self ’s future.