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Love: Leading Character in the Theater of War
By Elisabeth Marie
By Andrée Chedid
Paris: Flammarion, 2000. 207 pp
In a city ravaged by civil war, we witness a young woman named Marie rushing to meet and reconcile with her lover, Steph, after a recent dispute. As she runs down a deserted street, Marie is shot in the back. She falls to the ground mortally wounded, her life and dreams shattered. Drenched in blood, Marie gasps for breath, struggling to go o; she must find a way to let Steph know that she was coming. Crippled and in agony, unable to walk, she scribbles, “I was coming. I love you,” on the letter he had sent her. At that moment, Marie begins to fight; she has to hang on -- hang on to be sure Steph got her message; hang on to see him again. An elderly couple in their 80s, Anya and Anton, stumble across Marie as they are fleeing the city. Anton, a retired physician, realizes immediately that Marie is fatally wounded, but nevertheless the couple encourages her to fight for her life. They take it upon themselves to help out, and Anya runs to find Steph but misses him. Devastated, the old couple lies to Marie, telling her that Steph will arrive at anytime, and they, too, begin to believe the lie. Steph, who sensed that something might have happened to Marie, miraculously appears just in time, and she dies in his arms.
Just another love story, one might think that at first, but Andrée Chedid has created a singular love story because of its context, power and tragedy. Recalling techniques she used in “The Return to Beirut” and “The Multiple Child,” Chedid constantly takes us back and forth from one character to the other, from the past to the present.
Through her characters, the author denounces and protests war, hatred, devastation and religion: “How to involve God in this order, in this disorder? How to exclude Him from it?” Chedid reflects on history and its cycle of horrors, particularly through the character of Steph, whose field is (not coincidentally) archeology. The reader repeatedly wonder whether mankind will ever learn, whether the self-inflicted atrocities will ever stop.
Through her characters, the author denounces and protests war, hatred, devastation and religion: “How to involve God in this order, in this disorder? How to exclude him from it?”
Though the city and country remain anonymous, there is little doubt that the setting of “The Message” is Beirut. Beirut, with her line of demarcation, with her chaos, with her wounds, with her children killing one another for the sake of religion. Yet, by leaving the city unnamed, Chedid proclaims the universality of war, in the same way she illustrates the universality of Marie. It could be anyone anywhere: “The slaughtered, refugees, executed, victims of torture from all the continents, suddenly converge on this unique street, this person, this body, this heart at bay, this woman, anonymous and singular at the same time.” Chedid depicts the sufferings of human beings under all types of oppression, whether social or religious.
Marie’s struggle is made even more vivid by Chedid’s extremely detailed physical descriptions of Marie's fight for life. Everything in Marie is trying to prevent death from invading her body, but it is a lost cause. Marie finds the inner strength to lengthen her life for a few hours, but she remains helpless to stop the fatal outcome. Her blood flows inexorably, leading to the inevitable. The author stretches the process of death across several pages, thus reflecting on the seemingly endless moment when the body and the spirit form separate, becoming distinct entities.
Chedid illustrates the absurdity of war by mirroring the destinies of the two couples, one old and one young. The young couple in war is not meant to grow old together and is therefore sacrificed. “The roles should have been reversed. Isn’t it rather to the old age to pass away?” None of the characters can change this reality; consequently, the couples exchange looks of pity and envy: Anya and Anton see their long-gone youth in the young couple, while Steph and Marie watch the old lovers they will never have a chance to become. Anya and Anton find comfort in each other, but death is all that remains for Marie and Steph. Such tragedies are common in war-torn Beirut.
Chedid finally adds to the complexity of the situation by introducing Gorgio, a sniper and presumably Marie’s assassin. When confronted with one of his victims (probably for the first time), Gorgio swears to save Marie, possibly seeking his own salvation through his deeds. Gorgio questions his personal beliefs and the meaning of his actions while futilely searching for help. Through Gorgio, Chedid questions the purposes of the different religious and political parties. Though Chedid presents a sharp critique of snipers, who, during this particular war, felt untouchable because of the status they acquired through the violence they perpetuated, she feels a certain sympathy with her character. She leads the reader to understand that maybe fate pushed Gorgio to become a sniper, that maybe he was not a cowardly murderer after all. Through him, we can perceive the despair of a whole generation and its rebellion against traditions and social norms. As an interesting parallel to the horror he creates, Gorgio, who has found refuge in a famous writer’s apartment, learns about life outside of war and starts to discover himself through literature and music. He meticulously copies quotes from a wide array of literature into a small notebook that he keeps with him at all times. Chedid shows the healing and guiding powers of literature and music and suggests that these two arts can “civilize” men, bringing back a sense of humanity in the midst of irrationality. Unfortunately, this discovery comes too late for Gorgio. As he falls to the ground, the carefully copied notebook page with “to live is glory” (his favorite quote) flutters with the wind for a few seconds, and then lands next to his fallen body.
The novel ends on a negative note, and Chedid has left the reader with little reason to hope otherwise; violence and unfairness always recur. Even good people are trapped in the vicious cycle of war, as violence strips away all rationality from humans. The only possible remedy the author allows is Love. The strength of Marie’s unconditional love serves as an example for us all, and, likewise, the bond between the old couple, Anton and Anya, embodies the power of true love. Furthermore, through the older couple, Chedid depicts a thread of goodness within human nature. She shows the reader a certain heroism that pushes men and women to help perfect strangers in times of war, an act that is almost inconceivable in light of all of the horror found throughout the rest of the novel. This is a different kind of love, indeed, and one that can even defy the nonsense of violence.
“The Message” is a profound and intense novel. Its introspective interrogation of the human condition, along with a singularity of style and a compelling storyline, will keep any reader breathless and full of hope to the last page.
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).