A Palestinian Triptych

Samir El-Youssef, a Palestinian writer living in London, has written a masterful new novel. The Illusion of Return is a philosophical reflection on exile and the idea of return. A review by Volker Kaminski

Samir El-Youssef (photo: Judah Passow/Random House)
Displacement and exile: Samir El-Youssef grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; in 1990 he moved to Great Britain

​​Samir El-Youssef's novel The Illusion of Return is structured like a triptych. Two short parts – "Prologue from the Present" and "Epilogue from the Present" – envelope the novel's core, entitled "The Past," like the two wings of a triptych. The principles of symmetry and repetition carry throughout the text.

The first paragraph of the prologue is repeated in the first paragraph of the epilogue. And each of the five chapters in the main part begins with the same key sentence: "It was the last night when Ali, George, Maher and I were together."

This somewhat pretentious structure is balanced by the language, which is moderate and reflective, almost essayistic. With measured distance, as if it were a treatise, the narrator describes the events of a particular night twenty-two years ago when he met with three friends for the last time in Lebanon at the group's regular meeting place. But his memory of that night is plagued by painful events.

A journey to the past

​​The novel's core is set in the early 1980s. Lebanon is in chaos, thousands of Palestinians are living in refugee camps, a nighttime curfew is in place, and Israeli occupation troops are engaged in bloody battles with Palestinian and Lebanese militias.

The narrator initially plans to write an essay on this period of turmoil and war, but he fails – just as he had earlier failed to write his dissertation. He has been living in exile in London for fifteen years, but his past somehow seems unreal to him, he can't find the words to describe it. The memories slowly begin to come back to him when his friend Ali unexpectedly contacts him and they meet in Heathrow airport.

The meeting with Ali, who has been living in exile in the United States and now wants to return to Lebanon, brings back the pain of tragic events from the past.

El-Youssef's novel is captivating and his characters appear authentic – and this despite the fact that they also serve to represent various political or existential ideas. Their individual fates are nonetheless moving.

The weapons of resistance directed against the self

We learn about George, an introverted Heidegger expert who displays an unsettling absence of feeling; and Maher, a typical idealistic Marxist of his times who inadvertently becomes responsible for the destruction of the only factory in town and who will be murdered for it in a blind act of revenge.

And Ali, whose homosexual brother Sameh is coerced into the illegal weapons trade and ultimately brought to his death by the Palestinian resistance. In this episode, El-Youssef portrays the Palestinian resistance as morally bigoted.

The most disturbing story, however, is that of the narrator's sister, Amina. Just seventeen years old, she is trying to free herself from the constraints imposed by her family and joins a modern women's organization. But her path to independence is brutally repressed by her older brother Kamal. Her despair leads her to aim her pistol, part of the accoutrement of a modern Palestinian woman, against herself.

El-Youssef's precise, psychological storytelling creates tension, despite the fact that few details of the historical period are elaborated and the outside world remains oddly absent. The reader learns everything through the thoughts of the protagonists; their mistakes, intrigues and feelings of guilt are vividly and convincingly portrayed.

Portraits of human weaknesses and illusions

El-Youssef has the necessary sympathy with his characters; he depicts them as victims of their own weaknesses and the undignified circumstances in which they find themselves. The somewhat stiff structure of the novel is thus compensated by an authentic portrayal of their individual fates.

The way his figures give themselves over to self-deceit and thereby obscure uncomfortable truths is touching. Amina's mother, for example, convinces herself that her daughter died as a martyr in the struggle against Israel, though she well knows that it was in fact suicide.

Human existence as exile

At the end of the story, the narrator and his friend Ali come to a revelation: For the exiled of this world, there is no such thing as a return. "It is a journey in one direction only," says one of the novel's side characters, an old Jewish man who survived the horror of the Nazi period and lives in exile in the United States.

The novel's ending remains open – but this lack of closure seems intentional given this precisely composed work. The wings of this three-paneled image fold back onto itself and we are left to imagine what will become of the two friends.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Christina White

Samir El-Youssef, The Illusion of Return. London: Halban Publishers, 2007.


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