“A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere; in the exiles and prisons, and in a homeland transformed by the occupation and oppression into a nightmare. Poetry is perhaps what teaches us to … use words to construct a better world, a fictitious world that enables us to sign a pact for a permanent and comprehensive peace … with life.”1 Is this dream of the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, to be understood as merely that — a utopian dream? Or can fictitious worlds move us towards the realization of material improvements in human life by means of testimony to suffering and inequality and by inscribing a vision of change and hope? Certainly the writers discussed by Bashir Abu-Manneh in The Palestinian Novel respond to such questions in the affirmative.
The Palestinian Novel is an important and timely book, introducing a tradition of very fine novels that may be unfamiliar to many readers. The Palestinian Novel is also, in some respects, a controversial book. It engages in those current intellectual debates as to the political and epistemological limits and possibilities of committed art. The four major writers whose novels form the substance of Abu-Manneh’s study were fully immersed in the political and cultural movements for Palestinian liberation. Abu-Manneh offers a lucid mapping of their literary achievements onto the complex, entangled history that produced it: the Palestinian political struggles and geographical dispersals from 1948 to the present. The novel emerged as the dominant Arab literary form during this period and, Abu-Manneh claims, it provides the best entry point into the “structures of feeling” of those who participated in — or simply endured — the conflicts, loss, suffering, and dispossessions. As the novels testify, much was at stake during this time for Palestinians but also, potentially, for the world order. In the early years of the struggle, many Palestinians saw themselves as spearheading a movement for democracy and equality without confinement to any particular national boundaries.