Shattered Truths

By Alameddine, Rabih | The Evening Standard (London, England), July 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Shattered Truths


Alameddine, Rabih, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: RABIH ALAMEDDINE

Rabih Alameddine's second book, I, The Divine, is described as 'a novel in first chapters'. Here the Beirut-born author, now living in the US, explains why his stories have to be told in fragments

I WRITE in fragments of narrative, mostly nonlinear. It is not a conscious choice. I try to write a conventional narrative, but my mind rebels. I desperately want to prove to myself that I have the patience, and skill, to sit on my computer long enough to write a traditional narrative.

But, other than a few short stories (longer vignettes?), I fail miserably.

I might as well start writing in Swahili.

I am the product of two major disasters (three, if you count my allegedly romantic relationship with the one who shall remain nameless): the Lebanese civil war and the Aids epidemic in San Francisco.

Friends and relatives were dying at a furious pace in San Francisco and Beirut. As an Aids emotional support volunteer, I listened to men desperately trying to tell me their life stories, and I heard it all in short pieces.

Every time I got together with a dying man, he would begin his life story again, from a different point of view, from a different time. I usually saw the whole picture, but received it piecemeal. I came to know them intimately in a short period of time. The way I heard those stories inspired me to write about Sarah, who tries to tell her story in I, The Divine, but doesn't get very far before abandoning every effort.

Everything I remember about the civil war comes in bits and pieces. I recall, for example, how I stood on the roof of a building watching militias fight a few neighbourhoods away. I remember being shot at.

I remember cowering in bed, but having to pretend I was fine so my parents did not find out I had been on the roof. I do not remember how I left the roof. I remember practically nothing else from my 13th year (1973, two years before the war openly broke out). That incident overpowers the rest of my memories.

Those two catastrophes influenced my artistic style (both painting and writing); but were they the cause of my needing to write in vignettes?

Contemporary Lebanese writers do not write in fragments, and most Aids writing takes the form of conventional memoirs, so causality cannot be deduced. In Lebanese writing, and most writing actually, the continuity of time is paramount. In mine, it isn't.

Here's what I think. Because of my experiences, my perception of time is altered (The French philosopher Simone Weil says that man's tragedy is that he submits to something that does not exist: time.) Time becomes both terribly important and irrelevant. In my mind's eye, I remember the sound of a missile before it hit, I remember the faces of my family, the trembling of the dog, the shaking of the ficus in its pot, and even the changing light. My memory believes the missile's flight lasted over three minutes, but logic dictates it couldn't have been more than a few seconds, if that. …

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