By Nema El-Araby
“I wrote this novel with all my senses,” said Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj on this mesmerising, heartbreaking, nostalgic novel published on the 65th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. “Les Fantômes de Jérusalem” is a story of the struggles of a Palestinian-American, May, who was forced to leave her home like most Palestinian families in 1948.
Waciny Laredj is an author who writes with so much passion, that you can feel it in every word. He writes using music, colours, melancholy, and everything that could give a masterpiece this dazzling beauty. Most writers let their ink flow down their papers with some magic, but writers like Laredj use all their senses, every colour they have seen, and leave you in a stream of nostalgia that never ends, making you feel that this is the last story they are writing.
“Les Fantômes de Jérusalem” is a beautiful story of loss and pain, art and colours, and a sonata in between every emotion. It is one of those novels that did not receive the literary recognition it deserves, but its fans give it the kind of appreciation no other fans could give. It was translated into French under the title “Les Fantômes de Jérusalem”.
The main character, May, is forced to leave her hometown during the 1948 Palestinian Nakbeh. She then goes to the US as a refugee, and is raised there until she is old and struggles with illness. She later tells her son, Juba, her story of love and loss, and of how much she longs to go back home. She asks her son to be buried in her homeland. The Israeli authorities, however, refuse her request. (Imagine that, even when you’re ashes, you are not allowed to be part of your home soil!) May thus asks her son to be cremated and for her ashes to be scattered in the place where she spent her childhood.
May and Juba are both artists. May is a visual artist and Juba is a musician, and each of them uses their own art as an escape and an antidote to pain, loneliness, and oblivion. You will hear a sonata played in your head every couple of chapters, and be able to visualise a beautiful painting in the background of some scenes, also in your head. Over the 500 pages, it is hard to get bored, but easy to get depressed yet inspired by this story.
Laredj tells the story of May, a mother as well as a daughter, who finds it hard to forgive her father for hiding so many truths from her childhood. The two most interesting and different aspects in how this novel was written are the narration and time. The narration alters in almost every chapter – sometimes the narrator is Juba, sometimes May, and other times a third narrator who is strange to us. This gives vivacity to the story, and allowed us to take a glimpse at how each one views their world so we, too, can see it.
The novel also takes place in the past, present, and future. The characters mourn their memories, touch their piano keys in the present, and fear the future. It may seem quits confusing, but it all depends on how every writer can use this in his novel.
Laredj even dates the struggle back to the days of Al-Andalus, the time of May’s great-grandfathers, to add further depth to the melancholy. And with the time swinging between past, present, and future, dreams and nightmares are almost intertwined, with one chapter a dream, and the next a nightmare.
Although “Les Fantômes de Jérusalem” is not one of the novels that Laredj won awards for, and neither is it very well-known, any reader would agree that this is not an ordinary piece of work. Art, music, and colours alone in a novel would give it a beauty not every reader finds in his everyday novel. All these things together, combined with pain and exile, make this book a masterpiece.
It is, in fact, not uncommon that we find stories on the Palestinian struggle in the literary sphere. However, every novelist tells stories as per their own perspective and according to their own style. Some writers focus on the struggle, some focus on dealing with pain, while others try to find the art flowing out of this pain and resulting from it. Laredj could easily fit in this third category.
Because best-seller novels get more than the attention they need in bookstores, the hidden, beautiful, and deepest novels are scattered on shelves where no one searches, in bookstores that no one imagines exist, and at times when people never know what they need the most. “Les Fantômes de Jérusalem” is one of those books.