Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

"You Prefer Your Enemies Simple and Well Defined": Reading Anton Shammas' Arabesques as a Novel That Strategically Resists Interpellation

Academic journal article CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture

"You Prefer Your Enemies Simple and Well Defined": Reading Anton Shammas' Arabesques as a Novel That Strategically Resists Interpellation

Article excerpt


Anton Shammas's 1986 novel Arabesques has been the subject of much literary criticism and on-going discussions in Hebrew literature circles (Shammas). This paper argues that existing interpretations of this work share a fundamental similarity to the extent that they assume Arabesques to be a novel whose primary aim is to depict a certain kind of subject, in accordance with the complicated emplacement of Shammas as a Palestinian writing in Hebrew. Against such interpretations, we suggest that Arabesques is better understood as a text that resists the process of subject formation as linked to Althusser's notion of ideology (Althusser). Instead, Shammas explores the possibilities inherent in fictionality itself. Fiction, in our reading, is an alternative practice that opens up new possibilities for identity formations and for political criticism which are tied neither to ideology nor to the Althusserian interpellated subject. While departing from previous readings of the novel, these claims nevertheless stand in a line of descent with their predecessors. The attempt here is to rethink the relevance of Arabesques today, almost 30 years after its publication.

Following an overview of the main interpretations of the novel that reveals them as ideological readings focused on locating a specific subject, we will delineate two key forms in which Arabesques resists the construction of subjectivities: the parody that appears in its "Teller" segment and undermines the possibility of constructing an ideological subject, and the breach of the autobiographical contract that appears in the "Tale" segment, which deconstructs the possibility of establishing a subject through the personal life story. (2) Subsequently, we claim that Shammas does not only radically destabilize the ideological subject, but seeks to replace ideology with fiction. To conclude, we relate the significance of this reading to the wider field of Hebrew literature in which ideological readings are central.

The reading we suggest of Arabesques as a book that undermines the subject, bears significance beyond the interpretation of this in-itself important novel, offering insights and further potential applications in Hebrew literature studies. Our approach thus conveys how research about subjectivity in literature promotes closeness and exchange between different political streams and scholarly schools; it also further highlights how majority/minority relations are steeped in power- dynamics that interrupt any attempts to even examine them, as marginalized subjects' efforts of speaking-out, or writingagainst, often result in the further entrenchment and even empowering of the very same mechanisms they confront.

The Poetics of Arabesques

Arabesques is comprised of two different parts: The Tale and The Teller, each of them themselves divided into several parts. The novel shifts from one part to the other throughout, separated by title pages which include mottos quoted from other texts. The first The Tale part is titled The Tale, the following ones are titled The Tale Continued, and the last one (Part Nine) is titled The Tale Concluded. The Teller parts are each followed by a colon and an addition that references a place related to the novel's narrative--for example: The Teller: Pere Lachaise. The parts contain chapters that run consecutively, forming a formal continuation shared between the different parts. The writing style of each part is different, each of them contending with different themes, though with certain overlaps.

The Tale is about the history of the Shammas family, starting from the middle of the 19th century when one of the forefathers left what is now Syria to the Galilee, and ending, supposedly, in the time in which the novel is being written. The Teller tells the story of the storyteller and of the people of the village; it is written realistically and includes (pseudo?) documentarian- historical descriptions, performatively mimicking factual historiographic writing styles. …

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