Life encroaching on art

This is my review of Le Quatrieme Mur (Prix Goncourt Des LycEens 2013) by Sorj Chalandon.

The “fourth wall” of the title is the invisible barrier between the imagined world of the cast on stage and the reality of the audience and the outside world. It is 1982, and French historian Georges whose true love is the theatre promises his dying friend the enigmatic pacifist, Greek Jew Samuel Akounis that he will stage Anouilh’s “Antigone” during a negotiated cease-fire in a bombed Beirut cinema using actors drawn from opposing Lebanese groups: Antigone will be played by a Palestinian refugee, her lover by a Muslim Druze, her autocratic father by a Christian phalangist, his guards by Shiites and so on. Georges’ wife Aurora, understandably dismisses this as a dangerous folly, and the explosive flash-forward of the opening chapter indicates from the outset that the project will not end well.

Its achievement or otherwise does not really seem to be the point: just as Anouilh used the Greek tragedy to honour the French resistance to Nazi domination, Chalandon seeks to reinterpret it through the drama of the futile, self-perpetuating Lebanese conflict. It is not merely a simple case of individuals who have been conditioned to hate each other laying aside their grievances. Ironically, each player is persuaded or permitted to take part by a different cultural interpretation of the Greek tragedy. Yet when a resurgence of violence breaks through the fourth wall, roles are reversed and distorted as real life becomes the drama.

This novel is often theatrical and soaked in symbolism, as when Samuel gives Georges sand from Jaffa for the Palestinian actors who have been forced to leave their land – this has an obvious parallel with the earth Antigone insists on scattering over her brother’s corpse in defiance of her father Creon.

Some of the most powerful passages are descriptions of the Palestinian camps and the tension created by snipers, reflecting Chalandon’s background as a journalist. There are some strong play-like dialogues, although I agree with the reviewer who found a lack of development in the characters who tend to be stereotypes of the groups they represent. After somewhat rambling and disjointed opening chapters, this novel turns out to be both original and to have a carefully constructed plot which falls into place at the end like pieces of a puzzle. Yet it is undermined for me by the “stagey” approach permeating many scenes, rendering them artificial and contrived with a reduced potential to move the reader. I often found the sentimentality mixed with extreme violence quite distasteful, as when a sniper insists that Georges grasps his leg to feel the vibrations when he fires his weapon, only to start quoting Victor Hugo. Is this intended to redeem him by suggesting that he is a man with a soul despite his brutality?

I am not usually put off a book by my dislike of the main character, but in this case was often repelled by the self-absorbed, naïve, misguided, unstable narrator, clearly “turned on” by violence, who casually abandons the wife and child he professes to adore, who falls for his leading lady and lets everyone know it, who lies to people because he is too cowardly to admit the truth, not to mention his casual exposure to great risk of the driver Marwan who loyally assists a project about which he is profoundly sceptical.

The novel irritated me as I read it, but left me with a sense of ambiguity both as to what the author intended and what I actually drew from it.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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