Second Person Singular

It is likely that there will be different perceptions of Sayed Kashua’s  ‘Second Person Singular’ not only due to the literary devices he uses, but on account of ‘where we are coming from’ and perhaps too, where we come from.

I am intrigued by the questions it raises, which require some discussion to make sense of, which may never be resolved or agreed upon because of that earlier dilemma, perspective. They concern how identity affects behaviour and opportunity, the interactions of and between people who possess subtle differences, some of which are merely perceived and not necessarily seen, a surname, religious preference, education.

The story concerns ‘the lawyer’, an educated and ambitious man regarded as one of the most successful Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. One day he picks up a second-hand copy of Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, recognising it as a volume his wife has mentioned in the past with enthusiasm, only to discover what he perceives as a love letter between its pages, in his wife’s handwriting. Discovering the name Yonatan on the inside cover, between bouts of violent and paranoid thoughts regarding his wife, he sets off to hunt the culprit down.

The unveiling of the truth behind the note, is revealed before the end and what follows is a dissection of the two male characters behaviours, as we await the final confrontation. The lawyer, whose name we never learn , lacks emotion and seems aloof, suited to his role, until the discovery of the letter when it is revealed just how delusional and extreme his emotions can be, left unchecked by reality. The culprit, in some ways is similarly deluded, but in a more intriguing and interesting way.

As a reader I found the characters of more interest through their observations of the city and society they worked within, the villages they lived in and the consequences of their identity. It is this that would generate an interesting discussion, particularly as the two characters the story follows represent different faces of that same society.

They are Arab-Israeli’s, non-Jewish Israeli citizens whose cultural and linguistic heritage is Arab. A matter of geography and politics, those who live in the Occupied Territories (otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza) are of the same ethnic origin but refer to themselves as Palestinian, they of the same family as Arab-Israeli’s, they just carry a different legal status, which affects their education and employment opportunities and much more.

Creating strict country borders is a relatively modern idea and none more controversial than this ever-changing one, the enforcement of borders then gives rise to terms such as immigrant and refugee. The lawyer and other young educated men like him from villages in the North upon becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants in Jerusalem move to a suburban part of the city, where they were referred to by locals as immigrants, they are in fact the emerging middle class and we are given an interesting insight into what this means and how it manifests for this new generation of young people.

Perhaps it is a consequence of language and therefore thinking processes, but it reminds me that here in France the word for country ‘pays’ is the same word as region, so we can begin to understand how someone might be regarded as an immigrant in their own country.

Much of what this novel leaves me thinking about is how identity, borders and names can shape and influence opportunity and destiny, a universal dilemma for many or if we are fortunate, chances that we don’t even realise are so much more of an advantage than what some must confront by virtue of birth.

An interesting story and an exceptional insight into a world few really know or understand.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

A Rhyme for the Odes (Mu’allaqat)

No one guided me to myself. I am the guide.

Between desert and sea, I am my own guide to myself.

Born of language on the road to India between two small tribes,

adorned by the moonlight of ancient faiths and an impossible peace,

compelled to guard the periphery of a Persian neighbourhood

and the great obsession of the Byzantines,

so that the heaviness of time lightens over the Arab’s tent.

Who am I? This is a question that others ask, but has no answer.

I am my language, I am an ode, two odes, ten. This is my language.

I am my language. I am words’ writ: Be! Be my body!

And I become an embodiment of their timbre.

I am what I have spoken to the words: Be the place where

my body joins the eternity of the desert.

Be, so that I may become my words.

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me,

a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins

before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world around me.

I stood on the wind, and my long night was without end.

This is my language, a necklace of stars around the necks

of my loved ones.

- extract from ‘A Rhyme for the Odes’

by Mahmoud Darwish, from the collection ‘Unfortunately, It Was Paradise’

(13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008)