Cult figure – the French author of some 50 novels translated into 60 languages, and the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature – was in Quebec City this fall as part of the international jury for the Five-Continent Literary Prize presented at the summit of La Francophonie.
The jury of 12 writers – chaired by Lise Bissonnette, chair of the National Library of Quebec – awarded this year’s prize to Hubert Haddad, a Sephardi Jew of Tunisian origin, for his novel Palestine (Éditions Zulma).Haddad spoke about Palestine at a literary gathering at the Olivieri bookstore in Côte-des Neiges.
The novel tells the story of Cham, a young Israeli soldier with amnesia and no identification papers, who is taken in by a Palestinian family.
They think he is the sole survivor of a Palestinian commando squad. The blind mother, Asmahane, is the widow of a Palestinian political figure killed in an Israel Defence Forces ambush. Since the disappearance of her son, Nessim, she has been living alone with her daughter Falastin, a frail student. They decide to pass Cham off as Nessim.
The Israeli amnesiac thus comes to know the harsh conditions under which the Palestinians in the West Bank live, and the identity switch enables Haddad to show the similarities between the two enemy nations and to denounce the absurdity of the never-ending war between them.
Le Clézio said during the discussion that he was “seduced by the beauty and the power” of the novel.
“Palestine is a very strong book with a contemporary drama that resonates with everyone: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
“What’s amazing about Haddad’s novel is that he doesn’t take sides. The book doesn’t give only one version of the facts. Rather, it brings to life from within the complications and complexities of the drama.
Le Clézio noted that the change of identity gives the novel “an element of the fantastical,” but added that the Israeli-Palestinian drama is a political matter for which there is no foreseeable solution.
“It’s a very serious question because it is costing many lives in both camps. Both Palestinians and Israelis have committed cruel and horrible acts… But, in my opinion, Haddad’s novel brings hope. Putting yourself in the place of another may be the beginning of a solution – not a political one, but simply one that is human and philosophical.”
Le Clézio said that for him, Haddad’s novel goes to the heart of the problem, which has existed in Palestine for more than a century: “Two peoples who are almost brothers, two Semitic peoples who live in the same land and who must find a way to get along.
“But the only way for these two opposing peoples to get along is for one to walk in the other’s shoes. There is no other alternative. Starting with a fantastical theme, Haddad brilliantly tackles a human and philosophical problem…”
In 1992, Le Clézio published Étoile errante, a beautifully written novel that combines two people’s stories – that of Esther, a young Jewish woman who escapes from the Nazis during World War II and immigrates to Israel after the war, and that of Nejma, a young Palestinian refugee who leaves her country in 1948, when the State of Israel is founded.
The historic novel was not well-received in pro-Zionist Jewish circles, where Le Clézio was criticized for establishing a deceptive parallel between the unspeakable slaughter of the Holocaust and the exodus of the Palestinian people from their native land.
In 1988, Le Clézio published a novella in the militant Revue d’Études palestiniennes, in which he clearly showed his pro-Palestinian sympathies, thus arousing the anger of several Jewish intellectuals.
During the Francophonie meeting in Quebec, Le Clézio discussed his motivation in writing Étoile errante and expressed some personal opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the spring of 1943, a small village on the outskirts of Nice was transformed into a ghetto by Italian occupiers. A few weeks later, the Germans brought the entire Jewish population into the sealed-off area, Le Clézio said.
“My mother knew about this, but I was only a little boy. Years later, she spoke to me about it at some length. She also told me of events that are not discussed in history books. The Jews of that little village were savagely persecuted and then taken to a field and shot by the German army. I went to see that field. Then I wanted to write about this tragic story because it seemed to me that the Palestinian drama also had its roots far in the past.
“In fact, while traversing that dark field of memory, I realized that the death of those Jews shot in such a cowardly way by the Germans in that corner of Nice would in some way be a forerunner of everything that came after.”
While writing Étoile errante, Le Clézio discovered “the extent of the drama of the Palestinian refugees” by reading journals from the time of the first Arab-Israeli war.
“I read about everything that happened in Palestine in 1947 and 1948. I learned how the Palestinian population was deported: the people on the roads… how people waited on the beach, not knowing where to go; the rumours that circulated about settling accounts, about massacres, about extortion… The result was that the Palestinian Arabs gradually fled. When I wrote Étoile errante, the first Palestinian intifadah was at its height. Since then, the situation in Palestine has deteriorated a great deal.”
Le Clézio is quite pessimistic about the possibility of a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon.
“When I was writing Étoile errante, I thought that, sooner or later, there would be a political accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that Jerusalem would perhaps become a city under an international mandate – that is, a city that would be presented to the world as a model of coexistence and the possibility of reconciliation. It didn’t happen. I don’t know if it will ever happen… I am afraid that this perpetual conflict might become an all-out war that will go on until both peoples are virtually destroyed.
This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in French in the Montreal edition of The CJN. Translation by Carolan Halpern.