Mishka Mojabber Mourani
Last updated: 9 July, 2014

You can’t go home again: Review of Georgia Makhlouf’s Les Absents

"This book is about identity, about who we are and how we identify ourselves," writes Mishka Mojabber Mourani in a thought-provoking analysis of Les Absents.

Georgia Makhlouf is a writer’s writer. Like her narrator in The Absent Ones she designs frames of references and then adheres to them with the rigor of a professional.  Each chapter in the novel is a short story. The frame story is a phone book – or more precisely two – reflecting the dualities of the exile’s life.

The novel is divided into a phone book for Beirut and one for Paris.  It begins with an entry entitled Alice, the first of the Absent Ones, recounting a childhood friendship, and progresses over the years to reach the present time, the narrator as a wife and mother in Paris. Like an archeologist, Makhlouf sets up the parameters of a dig and uncovers significant fragments of artifacts – the evidence of feelings felt strongly, the terrible beauty of childhood emotions relived.

“The novel is divided into a phone book for Beirut and one for Paris”

The telephone book is significant in that it is an artifact that has stopped being useful, replaced as it is by the mobile phones that have become our memories. The absent people in Makhlouf’s novel are friends, acquaintances, lovers and family members who have died, who have moved on, or whom she has abandoned to distance and circumstance.  The novel is very much about memory and how we come to terms with our lives through the process of remembering. This novel of conflict and exile is another in a list that is beginning to emerge, now that enough distance from the Lebanese war is allowing for reflection and analysis.

Each portrait allows for the interweaving of the threads of war, identity and homelessness, as seen through the eyes of the child, the adolescent and the adult the narrator becomes. Each portrait ends neatly, often strikingly. The narrative progresses in snapshots and portraits, a syncopated account that mirrors the disorder and happenstance of life.

The novel is a memoir of sorts. It is also an attempt to bear witness. The narrator of Maalouf’s Les Absents describes herself as someone addicted to neatness. Like her phonebooks, she is constantly attempting to organize her world into neat episodes, desperately seeking an orderly linear progression to what is in fact a disorderly life rooted, as it is, in exile.

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The most interesting intrigue raised by the novel is the role of the narrator. The author plays with the reader by creating a narrator who is implicated in the drama of the events she portrays.  The reader finds herself confusing the narrator with the author because the narrator is not objective and removed: she is a character in the story and is flawed, leading us to question what kind of person she is. Is she an ugly duckling? Is she envious? Is she dependent on others for her self-image?  The narrator reminisces almost voyeuristically about the people in her life. She is in turn self-deprecating and defiant. She is clearly out of place in her world, though the author does not fully develop the tensions within her family: we know of conflicts, but not of their origins.

Makhlouf launches the book with a quotation from Amin Maalouf’s Origins: “I dislike the word roots – they imply that if you free yourself you die. Trees have to resign themselves to their fate, men do not… our native sap does not spread from our feet to our heads. Our feet are made only for walking. For us only the journey matters…”

“I dislike the word roots – they imply that if you free yourself you die”

Her rebellion, her rejection of her “roots” leads to her becoming a diluted being, one who is neither one thing nor the other but rather a hybrid – a new creature forged from war and exile: she thirsts for her Lebanon, but cannot return to it – will not do so. She is condemned to a rejection of her present without an alternative, for, whereas France was an alternative to Lebanon, the reverse is not possible. To quote the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “You can’t go home again.” The narrator has exhausted the option by leaving her homeland. With a nice twist, the novel ends with the narrator herself becoming one of the absent ones who populate her novel:

“Something in me had dried out as time and wounds passed. I was like a spring of water that had dried up, leaving nothing but the traces of its passage through rock and valley.  A quote by Juares stayed with me: ‘It is by flowing toward the sea that the river remains true to its source.’ It spoke to me of my journeys, my successive exiles, my uprootings. They formed the fabric of my life and were also a form of fidelity to the source, to the profound desire I had to breathe another air, to construct myself freely, far from the limitations of tradition, of communal atavism, of and constraints of conservative familial ties. ”

This book is about identity, about who we are and how we identify ourselves. It is about invention and reinvention. Going back to the quote by Amin Maalouf – identity and selfness is not about the roots, they are about the journey. And the writing of it.

Georgia Makhlouf,  LES ABSENTS,  Rivages/Lorient des Livres, Paris 2014, ISBN 9782743626877

Georgia Makhlouf is the founder of Kitabat, the Lebanese Association for the Development of Writing Workshops. She has written a number of other works, but this is her first venture into fiction. She is the author of the award-winning Les hommes debout: dialogue avec les Phéniciens (2007, Al Manar/Alain Gorius). Prix Phénix, and  Eclats de mémoire: Beyrouth, fragments d’enfance (2006, Al Manar/Alain Gorius). Prix France/Liban.