Bashir Abu-Manneh’s detailed study “The Palestinian novel: From 1948 to the present” (Cambridge University Press, 2016) combines the historical processes of Palestinian memory and postcolonial and literary theory in a manner which brings the various narratives and experiences of Palestinians to the fore.
There is a unifying factor identified by the author – dispossession – which is synonymous with Palestine and comprises the framework for analysing the historical framework and the literary expression within the novels; the latter by utilising the writings of literary theorist Georg Lukács, who argues that historical defeats and their aftermaths disrupted the previous literary forms. As Abu-Manneh states, for Lukács, the novel “is attuned to its multiple social and historical determinations.”
In the case of Palestine, the Nakba, 1967 and Oslo generated a unifying factor in the Palestinian experience despite the visible fragmentation of land and people. The spectrum of Palestinian historical memory is varied, intense and complex, revealing the dynamics of resistance and liberation to be fraught with both internal and external constraints. Indeed, the unifying factor in the Palestinian experience since the Nakba – dispossession – and its various ramifications, including the interpretations of anti-colonial resistance, form the foundations of Abu-Manneh’s treatise.
Dispossession is introduced immediately in the text: “Uneven condition is thus endemic to Palestinian existence, a basic fact of dispossession and exile.” With this statement, the author opens up on a plethora of consequences of political unevenness in which the exiled Palestinians and those living under military occupation embody distinct characteristics with regard to their struggle; characteristics that are all relevant in interpreting the literature chosen by Abu-Manneh for the purpose of this study.
The book discusses the trajectories of the Palestinian novel by expounding upon the works of four authors: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Ghassan Kanafani, Emile Habiby and Sahar Khalifeh. While departing from different forms of expression, a common theme in the works discussed is popular mobilisation and self-determination as being inherently connected. Hence, navigation through themes such as dispossession, nostalgia, the moral confrontation “between the occupier and the victim”, historical contradictions, rebellion, memory narratives and social disintegration features prominently.
A strong point in Abu-Manneh’s research is the ability to allow the novel to serve as a reality check with regards to mainstream political narrative versus the underlying realities. Indeed, the book acknowledges the differences in historical narrative between 1948 and1967 but does not fall into the trap of dissociation. Another prevalent theme is the juxtaposition of revolt and the failure of revolt, which is also reminiscent of the current political rhetoric with its focus upon acquiescence. As the author states, “Talk of a political entity or state is already talk of the failure of revolt, is already talk of the will to settle and accommodate to the existing constraints of the Arab world.”
In the Palestinian novel, however, there is the “ebb and flow of historical possibility and its aesthetic mediation.” Through his analysis, Abu-Manneh shows how Jabra’s novels expound upon the role of intellectuals in society which, if isolated, can lead to a restricted interpretation of resistance. For Jabra, change is linked directly to culture, which explains the strong presence of symbolism in his literature, including the notion of sacrifice as an act of liberation. Since Jabra views the intellectual as the catalyst for change, memory and rupture are prevalent constantly and in a constant struggle which can also be interpreted as a form of absence, depending on whether the analysis takes into consideration the different meanings of Palestine depending upon people and personal experience.
By way of contrast, Abu-Manneh shows how Kanafani’s focus on national consciousness and its role in promoting international awareness is imperative to develop the Palestinian national struggle and the internationalist perspective. For Kanafani, literary engagement and dispossession were the instigators for political action which needs to be ingrained in participatory mobilisation. Referring to Kanafani’s novel “Men in the Sun”, Abu-Manneh writes, “The tragedy of losing a homeland is first of all a tragedy for the poor.” There is a sequence between literary narration and events that need to be considered simultaneously for a deeper understanding of Kanafani’s work. It is not just the intellectual, but the entire society, that is “a whole project of social and political transformation.” In turn, Palestinian life is construed by contradiction, struggle and resistance.
The profound psychological manifestations and consequences of colonialism upon Palestinians in Habiby’s novels portray the connection between individual experience and historical events. For Abu-Manneh, collective consciousness after 1948 is imperative to understanding the contradictions in Palestinian struggle and the political constraints leading to decreased solidarity with fellow Palestinians, including collaboration. The theme and reality of disappearance, for example, is reminiscent of “the intolerable existence that causes it.” In this case, historical memory is an integral part of historical consciousness.
Khalifeh, on the other hand, embodies a radical and social critique departing from 1967. According to Abu Manneh, Khalifeh’s work displays the dynamics of how “Palestinian diasporic defeat catches upon with occupied Palestinians.” Her rejection of resistance in her writings is not an aversion to liberation; 1967 sets the foundations for renewed anti-colonial struggle and a continuation of the resistance associated with 1948. Her novels emphasise the importance of participatory self-organisation, which is shackled by the “national oppressor”. Abu-Manneh shows that Khalifeh’s writing is conscious of a number of conditions that need to be addressed, including collective freedom, individual self-emancipation and the many narratives of Palestinian history. Mass consciousness can be achieved by a convergence of the experiences of both intellectuals and the masses. This validates the author’s observation that the “Palestinian ruling class never showed any sign of national solidarity with or sympathy for the rebels.” Defeat, therefore, is as ingrained as resistance.
The literary expression of the authors discussed by Abu-Manneh, as well as the expertise articulated by him, has moved towards a conclusion that is both liberating and delusory, although the latter is embodied by the corruption of leaders who have normalised defeat and allowed its repercussions to become an unwitting expression of Palestinian society under particular circumstances. Consciousness, therefore, is the means of combating political abandonment as well as subservience to colonial and imperialist interests. In the novels which are analysed, reality is clearly depicted while leaving ample space for possibility within remembrance, which is what is needed, in Abu-Manneh’s words, “to actively imagine the transformability of the present again.”