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Turning History Into Fiction

Elias Khoury’s novelization of 1948 makes up more than just its characters and plot. Does it matter?

Adam Kirsch
September 03, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Library of Congress
Searching on a curfew day at Lydda, 1934-1939 Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Library of Congress
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Library of Congress
Searching on a curfew day at Lydda, 1934-1939 Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Library of Congress

Every work of history is also a work of fiction. When the historian sits down to write, she is not offering a transparent window onto the past—something that no book could possibly accomplish, simply because it is a book and not a world. Rather, she is telling a story about the past, which like all stories depends on selection and omission, interpretation and exaggeration. She is bound by certain generic constraints—for instance, the historian is not supposed to make up facts, characters, or dialogue, as the novelist can. But the historian has other kinds of imaginative devices at her disposal that the novelist lacks. She can invent movements, periods, historical forces, chains of cause and effect, in an effort to give shape and logic to events that, while they were being lived, appeared chaotic and unpredictable.

The key difference between the novelist and the historian has to do with the kinds of questions they ask about the past. The historian wants to tell a story about why things happened, while the novelist asks how they happened and what they felt like. This division of labor is useful for both genres, but it also leaves them prey to distinctive vices. A historian can schematize the past in such clever and convincing ways that the actual substance of history—the experiences of individual human beings—disappears entirely. On the other hand, a novelist can evoke the immediate experience of a fictional character so vividly that the reader may lose track of the key question of whether the story accurately reflects anything that happened in the real world.

Does that kind of accuracy really matter in a historical novel? The answer depends on what kinds of claims the novelist makes in and for the work—that is, how he wants the book to affect the present. Some writers use history as merely an exotic backdrop to an exciting tale, like medieval England in Scott’s Ivanhoe or Renaissance France in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Today, a writer of this type would probably dispense with actual history entirely and set their story in a detailed fantasy realm, like the Panem of The Hunger Games or the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

In the 20th century, however, historical fiction became a much more serious and self-conscious enterprise, as writers began to think of it as a form of witnessing to the past. The idea that it is the writer’s duty to bear witness to historical tragedy was created by works like Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front and Holocaust memoirs such as Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night—books that were based directly on the actual experiences of participants in those tragedies.

But the moral urgency (and moral prestige) of such writing also influenced fiction writers, who realized that the novel offered a means of bearing a kind of witness to events in the past, which they knew about only second hand. Such writers could draw inspiration from the literary critic Walter Benjamin, who wrote, shortly before his own tragic suicide: “Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” In this sense, restoring the fullness of the past, through works of literary imagination, could be seen as a contribution to the redemption of mankind. Benjamin himself has been the subject of such acts of redemption. He died alone, trying to escape the Nazis in 1940, and was buried in an unmarked grave, but his story has been told many times, including in the historical novel Benjamin’s Crossing by Jay Parini.

Giving voice to the voiceless, bearing witness to history—these are the goals of some of the most praiseworthy books of the last generation, from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, about imaginary lives disrupted by Nazism, to Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which examines the effects of WWI on shellshocked veterans, to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which excavates the spiritual world of a Protestant pastor in post-Civil War America.

Yet empathy isn’t the only requirement for justice. The righteous anger and indignation that witness fiction is adept at summoning can easily go astray, and turn into its own kind of unjust grievance, if it’s not tethered to a rational understanding of the past. For instance, the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation, or the popular Nazi melodrama Jew Suss, were both historical fictions that claimed to expose perpetrators of injustice: The former showed how white Southerners were victimized by greedy Northerners and bestial freedmen, while the latter showed how Germans were victimized by greedy and bestial Jews. That these stories were inversions of historical truth didn’t detract at all from their power to inspire feelings of righteous empathy in their audiences.

My Name Is Adam, a novel by the Lebanese-born writer Elias Khoury that was published in English translation this summer, offers a good example of how difficult it is to disentangle the rights and wrongs of historical fiction. Khoury’s novel, the first of a planned trilogy called “Children of the Ghetto,” is cast as a found manuscript—the journal of a Palestinian man named Adam Dannoun who has recently died in New York City, where he worked in a falafel restaurant in Greenwich Village.

At first, Dannoun sets out to write a novel on a theme from Arab legend—the story of the poet Waddah al-Yamman, who was in love with a married woman named Umm al-Banin, and regularly sneaked into her bedroom until he was caught by her husband and killed. As the book progresses, however, we see Dannoun discard this literary theme under the pressure of a much more urgent subject: his own family’s experience during and after the 1948 war, which Israelis remember as the War of Independence and Palestinians as the Nakba, the catastrophe. “I’m the son of a story that has no tongue, and I want to be the one to make it speak,” he writes, in words that could be echoed by many witness-writers. In particular, Dannoun (and his creator, Khoury) wants to commemorate the events of 1948 in his hometown of Lydda, the Palestinian city that was conquered by Israeli soldiers during the war and incorporated into Israel as Lod.

The second half of the book, then, consists primarily of Dannoun’s retelling of stories he has gleaned, from friends, family, and books, about Lydda in 1948. In focusing on these events, Khoury wades boldly into one of the most heated historiographical controversies about the war. The basic facts are not in dispute: on July 10-12, 1948, the city was conquered by Israeli forces and 35,000 of its Arab residents were expelled.

The debate centers on the number and circumstances of the Arab casualties during the fall of Lydda. In a 2013 article in The New Yorker drawn from his book My Promised Land, Ari Shavit wrote that some 250 Arab civilians were killed, most of them massacred in a mosque where they had taken refuge from the fighting. Shavit suggested that this was a deliberate war crime, committed as part of a wider Israeli strategy of ethnic cleansing: “Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda,” he wrote. This agrees with the Palestinian historiography of the episode, but other historians have disputed the charge. Martin Kramer, for instance, has written that there is no evidence to support the figure of 250 Arab deaths, and that those who died were fighters who fell in battle, not victims of a massacre.

In My Name Is Adam, however, Khoury doesn’t focus on the actual fighting in Lydda, or even on the massacre. Rather, he is most concerned with the days and months after the fighting ended. In highly emotional prose, he records how the remaining Arab population was fenced in and forbidden to leave, except for a small party tasked with finding water, and how young men were tasked with burying the corpses that lay baking in the summer heat.

These tales are heartbreaking, and entirely credible: They could be scenes from any conquered city in the history of warfare. Yet Dannoun is haunted by the knowledge that the experience of the Arabs of Lydda remains open to doubt, because it was not recorded in documents of the kind that historians trust. Instead of evidence, he has to deal in memories wrested from silence: “I believe that the victims of this massacre didn’t tell its tales because these were etched into their souls and went with them everywhere throughout their lives of misery, and they could see no need to demonstrate the self-evident truth of what they had lived through.” It is precisely because of this silence that Dannoun is forced to tell their stories for them, to turn himself into a historical novelist.

Khoury excels at imagining the “how” that historical fiction is meant to capture. But when it comes to why things happened and what they meant, My Name Is Adam raises questions it fails to answer. Why, for instance, did the Israeli army conquer Lydda in 1948? A full explanation would require mentioning the 100,000 Jews who were slowly starving in Jerusalem, which was under siege by Arab forces; it was to open the road to Jerusalem that the Israelis launched their offensive against Lydda and Ramle. But Khoury doesn’t discuss this background, any more than he takes account of the reciprocal massacres that Jews and Arabs had been inflicting on one another for 20 years before 1948. The fall of Lydda appears to the reader as it must have to many of its inhabitants, as an inexplicable catastrophe, a bolt from the blue.

The main problem, however, lies in Khoury’s insistence on identifying what happened in Lydda with the Jewish experience in Europe during the Holocaust. The chief example is his use of the term “ghetto” to describe the Arab quarter of the conquered town. As Khoury acknowledges, this neighborhood was sealed off with fencing only for about a month, while the war went on. Yet he insists that the term applies equally well to Lydda and to Warsaw, where 400,000 Jews were held captive for two years until they were murdered in death camps.

Adam Dannoun cultivates a mystery about his origins and identity, telling people that he is actually a Jew who was born in the Warsaw Ghetto. Khoury suggests that this was not actually a lie: “I really was a son of the ghetto, and my claims to Polish origins and to being from Warsaw were no more than an appropriate metaphor to describe my childhood in Lydda,” Khoury writes. Dannoun approvingly quotes his Jewish Israeli girlfriend Dalia’s equation of Israel with Nazi Germany: “The Palestinians are the victims of the victims, and the Jewish victims have no right to behave like their executioners.” He refers to the Arabs conscripted to bury the dead at Lydda as “Sonderkommandos,” the term used for Jewish prisoners forced to empty the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

This kind of rhetoric is common enough, and to a reader who knows nothing more of the relevant history than what they read in My Name Is Adam, it might seem apt. But it is a vast distortion of the meaning, cause, and scale of what happened in 1948 to equate the suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of the Jews with the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Of course, it’s not incumbent on victims to place their tragedy in historical perspective: Each individual’s suffering is unique and deserves to be mourned on its own terms. But in comparing Lydda to Warsaw—and also, earlier in the book, to Sabra and Shatila—Khoury is precisely failing to mourn Lydda on its own terms. Perhaps this is a sign that 1948 does not yet belong to history, but remains in the bitterly contested zone of memory, myth, and politics.


Read Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.