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HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF TEARS, A (Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Paperback)) Paperback – 4 Jan 2007
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A hard-hitting but poetic autobiographic account of growing up in war-torn Beruit introduces readers to a young man who is gradually being distanced from his family as the city falls apart around him. Original.
About the Author
V nus Khoury-Ghata's She Says, which was also translated by Marilyn Hacker, was recently published in the United States a named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
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... I exhume two of my dead and one living-dead: my brother who concentrated within himself all of his father's ambitions and fury; I want to question them, open their mouths sealed in silence, to rout out by force the cause of those rages, as brutal and brief as resin-fires.
In a northern village, the tomb of a Maronite saint has been sweating blood for a century. My father's grave oozes threats from its stony pores. My mother's, modest and moss-covered, seeps tears. My mother had only tears to defend her son. "God, let him be dead!" I would repeat until I was near fainting when my father was late coming home. I dreamed about being an orphan. Only his death would stop my mother's tears, my brother's cries of terror, and we three girls from trembling."
...So begins Venus Khoury-Ghata's book, A House at the Edge of Tears - published by Greywolf Press, 2005. After reading the first four pages, I was left feeling as if my very being had been churned, tossed, and spit out - not so much horrified by the brutality but disturbed but at the same time in awe of the immense effect mere words, conjoined into haunting sentences, had effected - bringing home images of a brutality and a grief that one couldn't imagine, let alone empathize with.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century - "My belief is that art should not be comforting. For comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish."
By that measure, Venus Khoury-Ghata has written a veritable piece of art. Most novels, in my opinion, lose a lot in translation but if that is the case here, the talent of Khoury-Ghata can only then amaze one even more. Marilyn Hacker, herself a poet and author of some repute, has brought us English readers a genuinely amazing read - so much so, I am tempted to go and immediately read Khoury-Ghata's award winning book of poems, She Says, also translated by Hacker.
Without giving away too much of the story here or having to reproduce the entire four pages or the entire book, for that matter, suffice it is to say that the book takes us along on a relentless, brutal, and hauntingly poignant journey, without ever stooping to self-pity or self-indulgent sensationalism.
The author, a Lebanese poet and novelist, resident in France since 1973, narrates the story of her childhood in Beirut forty years ago - throwing `sentences on the page in great shovelfuls, with a noise of falling earth,' digging into her `shame like a grave' - and takes us on a unsettling journey of her family's angst, set against the backdrop of the interminable descent of Lebanese society into the chaos of war.
Other than Without, a book of poems by Donald Hall, which I had read in one sitting deep into the night some years ago, and which had me bawling, commiserating with the loss felt by the poet over the loss of his wife, the poet, Jane Kenyon, I cannot remember any book that I have read - and there have been many over the years - which has evoked such a powerful emotional response from me. The story of this book, while sad and difficult, is not something which readers may never have encountered elsewhere. The grief and injustices suffered by the victims of war, the Holocaust, and other similar singular and not-so-uncommon travesties sometimes have a tendency to numb the spirit and have, in the past, prompted me to stay away from the mundane common fare of umpteen novels, fictional and memoirs, written each year about the tragedies that befall families and how they either fight through it or succumb to it. However, this is not one of those books... the reasons that make this book special and different is that the story was not what moved me but it was the words, the sentences, and the powerful images and their symbolism that conveyed...
Only in reading the Afterward at the end of the book, which the author signs off as herself and not as the narrator of the novel, did I realize that the power and potency of the words comes through a real familiar experience of the author. While the artistic liberties taken by the author in narrating the story of her brother are unclear, (the book not being indicated anywhere as being a memoir), clearly the novel is a journey of catharsis ('to each his own tomb: mine is in these pages'), guilt, fear, grief, shame (`shame nailed me to the ground', and finally, redemption (with the novel ending with `You (the brother) are the only survivor').
Personal Note: At 110 pages, the novel is a short read but for all the reasons outlined above, can be a moving and difficult one. In fact, I found it very difficult to go past the first four pages the first couple of times. Interjected by the mundane routine of life and work, I moved to some `lighter' reading, but came back to this book after a two-week hiatus on a flight from Boston to Cleveland. But re-reading the first few pages, I once again struggled to continue -not because the language is difficult, which has happened to me before with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and to a certain extent with Ian McEwan's Amsterdam), but because the words affronted me with their brutal honesty - like the pomegranate tree in the courtyard of the narrator's childhood home, `spattering the landing with bloody juice when its fruit burst open in the sun'. I stopped but restarted again at page 75 the next time and succeeded in reading the last 30 pages - and found that after that I was able to somehow making the necessary emotional leap to start again at the beginning. Reading the end prematurely may have taken away some of the `suspense' from the reading but the writing is what kept me hooked, not the story and so I finished reading the entire book in one sitting (being stuck on a plane for 2 hours helped!) - starting again at the beginning and re-reading the last 30 pages again for a final complete reading of the book.