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OpenEdition Books Demopolis Quaero Rachid El-Daïf 8. The Importance of Being Kawabata

Rachid El-Daïf

Katia Ghosn

8. The Importance of Being Kawabata

The Narratee in Today’s Literature of Commitment

Ken Seigneurie

Texte intégral

1This is one of those rare essays, Dear M. Barthes, that will persuade you some minor critical category has been scandalously overlooked. I’m sure if you pay close attention, you will agree that it develops a valuable thesis about how stories inflect consciousness. You may even be surprised to see that concepts derived from particle physics like “inflect,” “valence,” and “oscillate” help us to recover a sense of human dignity.

2The overlooked critical category is that of the “narratee” and the thesis is that this textually inscribed “you” can vector a sense of ethical commitment to a war-exhausted readership. Along the way, the essay will also make a case for a more fluid paradigm of literary communication. The intended result: a revalidation of literature’s role in our personal lives and in civil society.

3One need not have enjoyed the Woody Allen film Zelig or Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to know that in any storytelling situation, the narrative that gets told depends to a large extent on the narrator’s assessment of the narratee. Why does Homer have Odysseus tell his story in such magnificent detail to Nausikaa’s father? Is it the hero’s homage to the narratee-host to obtain guest gifts? Or a sublimation of his desire for the daughter? Or maybe a purging of guilt felt for the acts he recounts? At any rate, one can argue that the narrator-narratee relation conditions the story and not only that but also the listener and even the story-teller himself since Odysseus is arguably a different man after telling his story — less impulsive, more circumspect.

  • 1 Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse. New York, Cornell UP, 1978. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative (...)

4A couple of obstacles, however, stand in the way of theorizing the narratee. For one, since narratees are often only indirectly depicted, the reader often must infer their characteristics. For another, since the narrator tailors the story largely to a perception of the narratee, the narratee often appears as a projected image. Then again, some narratees such as those of most heterodiegetic realist novels are almost indistinguishable from the reader. In each case, the difficulty is to theorize an unexpressed subject position that, nevertheless, conditions the story to some extent. Maybe this is why theorists often slip the narratee in as an addendum to their discussion of the narrator (see Chatman and Rimmon-Kenan1). Already in his ground-breaking early work, Prince traced the neglect of the narratee to the overwhelming presence and role of the narrator, taking it for granted that, “the narrator, on a superficial if not a profound level, is more responsible than his narratee for the shape and tone of the story as well as for its other characteristics” ( “Introduction”, p. 8).

  • 2 It is anything but unusual to read about how characters escape their author’s control. In the novel (...)

5In an effort to attain a more profound understanding of the narratee’s role in storytelling, it is helpful to remember that the narrator, the narratee and, for that matter, all the characters, are projected subjectivities. Overdetermined and riven by discourse as he or she may be, the author deploys a particular constellation of characteristics and perspectives in the narrator and assumes this subject position in order to, in turn, project the characteristics and perspectives of the narratee and characters. None of these entities fully separate from the author, but at the same time, they can exercise a quasi-autonomous function in the narrative.2 All this by way of saying that if projected subjectivities are usually invisible, it is because they are everywhere. The fact that the narratee is largely a second order projection of the author through the narrator does not make it any less effective in conditioning the narrative.

  • 3 As an alternative to “narratee,” Peter Rabinowitz, a principal theorist of the “rhetorical turn” in (...)
  • 4 This is not to underestimate the sheer difficulty of actually overcoming self-projection in represe (...)

6From the standpoint of reception, readers introject narrator, narratee and character subject positions.3 This essay assumes a capacity among readers to interiorize the other (whether narrator, narratee, character or author) and therefore literally change their minds. It is not a given that readers take on or throw off roles; they can also realize the addressee within themselves. This efficacy of literary representation applies even, and especially, to a poststructuralist world of decentered, constantly becoming consciousness. In historical terms, Prince initially conceived of the narratee as a hypothetical existent outside the reader, preserving the reader’s integrity. Rabinowitz brought the narratee within the reader, calling it a narrative audience, but stressed that it was a role that a part of the reader’s mind assumes temporarily. The narratee presented here and, for that matter, the other represented subject positions as well, are realized in our minds as readers.4 Raskolnikov becomes a part of us, not merely a role that we put on and off. So, alas, does Beavis. The result is that literature recovers some of the weight and consequence that it has traditionally had since Plato: it is a game with stakes in identity.

  • 5 Daif, Rashid al-. Dear Mr. Kawabata. Trans. Paul Starkey. Foreword by Margaret Drabble, London, Qua (...)
  • 6 Stefan G. Meyer, The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant, Alba (...)
  • 7 Linda Hucheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Rout-ledge, 1988, p. (...)
  • 8 Tony Davies, Humanism, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 24.

7The novel whose treatment of the narratee I find most useful for the purpose of showing the relations among narrator, narratee and reader emerged in 1995 from the rubble of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990). Rashid al-Daif’s Dear Mr. Kawabata, first published in Arabic in Beirut, has since been translated into eight languages.5 Included among Arabic “experimental novels” by Stefan G. Meyer6, it certainly displays a post-modern penchant for theoretical self-awareness, but ultimately it ill fits this category derived from contemporary Western literature. Most obviously, if there’s one thing Western postmodernists agree on, it is the bankruptcy of humanism7. Al-Daif’s novel, however, retains a humanist priority on individual conscience provided it is defined relationally in society and dynamically as an ongoing process and not as a reified “central essence”8. This refusal to jettison the human, as I have written elsewhere, distinguishes much contemporary Arabic fiction from Western counterparts ( “A Survival Aesthetic” and “Ongoing War”).

  • 9 Aghacy, Samira. “The Use of Autobiography in Rashid al-Daif’s Dear Mr. Kawabata.” Writing the Self: (...)

8Written in the wake of civil war, Dear Mr. Kawabata explores a society in shambles, one in which no ideology, institution or ethnic/ sectarian identity went unscathed by corruption and opportunism. It is part epistolary novel in that it takes the form of a long letter to the great Japanese novelist, Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972), and it is also part autobiography in that the homodiegetic narrator, one Rashid al-Daif, shares many characteristics with the author, Rashid al-Daif: both were born and raised in a Maronite Catholic village, obtained doctorates in France, became professors of Arabic literature in Muslim West Beirut, were active members in the Lebanese Communist Party, and, finally, both suffered grave shrapnel wounds during the war.9 The narrator’s effort to redeem and recover civil society, therefore, begins with the redemption and recovery of the self.

9He is most interested in the interface between the self and the social in language use. His story begins in immediate postwar Beirut as he glimpses a former comrade-in-arms strolling smugly in the street, postwar opportunism writ large in the way he glides over craters in which others founder. Rashid is stunned by the transformation of the erstwhile Leftist militant and by the epiphany that the grand narrative they had once fought for is now a mess of empty signifiers. He becomes obsessed with the opportunist and is terrorized at the prospect of morphing into his former mentor trait for trait in a Baudelairean loss of identity. Jean Baudrillard has glossed this essentially modern phenomenon:

Quand les choses, les signes, les actions sont libérées de leur idée, de leur concept, de leur essence, de leur valeur, de leur référence, de leur origine et de leur fin, alors elles entrent dans une auto-reproduction à l’infini.

  • 10 Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du Mal: Essai sur les phénomènes extrêmes. Paris: Galilée, 1990, (...)

[When things, signs and actions are freed from their idea, their concept, their essence, their value, their reference, their origin and their end, they then enter into infinite selfreproduction.]10

10The narrator knows that the split between the world and language is foundational wisdom of not only opportunism but also of posthumanism, so his search for a way out of opportunism is also a search for a non-contingent sense of the human. Yet he also knows that the grail of human essence is a mug’s game, so his quest will have nothing to do with distinguishing characteristics of one kind or another.

11In the long letter to Kawabata that springs from this crisis, Rashid recounts his life history, unwittingly probing the points at which language and the world were sundered in his and his nation’s life. He examines in memory the first fiery days of his youthful commitment to reason, how he stung the village theologian into spiritual breakdown, how he disdained his father’s life-long commitment to clan and sectarian struggle, and how he glibly disabused his mother of her religious misconceptions — and her source of strength in a harsh life: “[T] here is no reward to be collected in heaven for the suffering you suffer today” (p. 81). The relentless demystification touches all the bases — or rather sweeps them away: religion, clan, and bourgeois political ideologies. The narrator grows from smart-aleck adolescent to Communist intellectual until, during the war, the Party itself falls into the gap between language and real-world events:

A lot of killing was being done by our allies on the basis of identity cards, many robberies were taking place, and Christian interests and homes were being pillaged and destroyed in the areas where our allies the Palestinians (and ourselves with them) had begun to assume control. When anyone objected, the response to them was the passage from Lenin where he said that the revolution was bound to be infiltrated by opportunists, but that these people could not change the overall course of events! (p. 142)

12In the anomic aftermath of the war Rashid is helpless to counter his former friend’s cynicism. The balance of the novel unfolds as a struggle to escape the logic that if all language-world links are ephemeral and contingent, then why not churn out “commitment signifiers” for the nonce?

13I can understand that a man should distance himself from an event, so as to speak about it with some neutrality, but to mock convictions which we held, or rather, I held, from the bottom of the heart… “The bottom of the heart! Another unchanging expression! How is it that language writes itself through us? How is it that we are merely its vehicles?” (p. 136; ellipses and emphasis original). Precisely to the degree that Rashid becomes aware of the equivocality of language, he becomes aware of opportunism’s seduction.

  • 11 Robyn R. Warhol, “Toward a Theory of the Engaging Narrator: Earnest Interventions in Gaskell, Stowe (...)
  • 12 I avoid using here the term, “implied reader,” the audience presupposed by the text. The term has o (...)

14His quest to demystify language and eradicate his own unwitting opportunism leads him to Kawabata. As a dupe of discourse in a corrupt society, the narrator has no purchase on language. Kawabata becomes his Archimedean point. Their relation is, on the one hand, exceptionally verisimilar. Just as the narrator, Rashid, shares numerous characteristics with his author, the narratee, Kawabata, is closely associated with the extradiegetic Nobel Prizewinning author of The Master of Go. At the same time, however, the novel seems to squander its hard-won reality effect by endowing the narrator with a perfect memory of all events from prior to his conception to presumably after his death. Nor does choosing a narratee who committed suicide in 1972 do much to soften the contradiction between maximum authenticity and maximum artifice. The resulting tension bears compare with Robyn Warhol’s notion of “engaging” and “distancing” narrative modes. The engaging narrator’s intimacy, “strives to close the gaps between the narratee, the addressee and the receiver”11 to encourage a sense of shared humanity. Conversely, the distancing narrator sharpens these distinctions and conveys a sense of his authority and control. It is a crucial feature of Dear Mr. Kawabata that these terms are useful not only to characterize the narrator, but the narratee as well. Kawabata, the “you” inscribed in this text, participates in the thematic and rhetorical work by forming a third, silent subject position in addition to those of narrator and reader.12 Why fuss about this narrator-narratee-reader relation? Because the modulation of engaging and distancing functions first thematically in the recovery of language, and second rhetorically in the appeal to the reader to reembrace ethical commitment. No mean feat. The theoretical upshot is a complicating of the communicational paradigm to include multiple, simultaneous messages across diegetic levels.

  • 13 Robyn R. Warhol, “‘Reader, Can You Imagine? No, You Cannot’: The Narratee as Other in Harriet Jacob (...)

15In two articles and a book, Warhol explores how the narrator variously interpellates the narratee to aesthetic or rhetorical purpose. The narratees she studies are generally extradiegetic and associated with the reader and, therefore, the communicative situation resolves itself into a binary relation between narrator and reader-narratee. She is aware that binaries tend to congeal into essences and suggests that we look at engaging and distancing narrators as “both/and” rather than “either/or”13? The present essay follows this counsel but also takes a different approach by studying a text in which the narrator, narratee, and reader positions are exceptionally distinct, yielding a three-way narrative relation perhaps paradigmatic of similar but less prominently figured triangular narrative situations in other texts and traditions. A glance at how each corner of the triangle relates to the others in this novel is a necessary preamble to showing how triangulation serves the purpose of exploring the problem of language and commitment.

Kawabata, the Narratee

16Both the narrator Rashid and the historical Kawabata suffer modernity to the point that death tempts Rashid and takes Kawabata. Yet despite these biographical similarities, Kawabata is primarily a projected, virtual presence. The narrator mentions little from the actual Kawabata’s life, and since the extradiegetic Kawabata had few ties to Arab culture, the narrator is free to attribute qualities to him:

Dear Mr. Kawabata,
I always used to dream of being appointed king of some distant peoples.
I would rule over them with justice, and dedicate myself to their service.
I dreamed that I would be appointed as an arbitrator between warring factions, in some part of the world, to provide a model of fair play [...].
I loved the innocence of the stranger. Perhaps I still do. The stranger’s lack of preconceptions to me meant neutrality. Perhaps it still does.

17So here I am, Mr. Kawabata, appointing you as the king I dreamed of being myself, the arbitrator obeyed because of his sincerity. (p. 8)

18One may be tempted to dismiss this narratee as a mere cipher-ideal, a replacement for the God that the narrator dispensed with as an adolescent, but this would be to ignore that Kawabata is also a trusted friend and colleague:

Mr. Kawabata,
There is no doubt in my mind that the more I press on with what I have to say, the more eager you are to listen, despite the fact that your own style in constructing a narrative is to hurry to reach a conclusion, like a piece of architecture striving towards a perfect form. But your mind is open, no doubt, to other temperaments. (p. 10)

19With respect to the narrator, then, Kawabata is ontologically distant but emotionally engaging. His distance from the narrator ensures his authority; his emotional proximity fuels the narrator’s desire to meet the great writer’s standards: “You will doubtless detect in what I say a desire on my part to demonstrate the purity of my inner self and the sincerity of my commitment” (p. 104).

  • 14 James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Columbus, Ohio State U (...)
  • 15 Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” Reader Response Criticism: From Formal (...)

20As for Kawabata and the reader, if, as James Phelan writes, “the fuller the characterization of the you [the narratee], the more aware readers will be of their differences from that you,”14 then Kawabata clearly has little in common with the reader. Kawabata, the paragon, is maximally distanced. Moreover, the narrator’s constant metanarrative comments to Kawabata maintain the reader in the position of observer as opposed to addressee. The canonical narratees in Balzac, George Eliot, Thackeray, Stowe, Conrad and Camus stand as a “relay” between the narrator and the reader, but not lofty Kawabata15. Whereas most discussions of the narratee — I’m thinking of Prince’s, Warhol’s and Phelan’s — show how readers are invited to blur the boundaries between addressee and observer positions, Kawabata is a thoroughly distant narratee and the reader never has the privilege of sharing his addressee position.

Rashid, the Narrator

21Warhol lists five ways in which narrators can be distinguished as engaging or distancing according to: 1) the form and 2) the frequency of address to the narratee, and the level of irony in referring to3) the narratee,4) the characters and 5) the act of narration itself. By this measure, the narrator of Dear Mr. Kawabata maintains a thoroughly engaged relation with his narratee, Kawabata. At the same time, however, and against almost all five criteria, the narrator, Rashid, also engages his reader. By naming and frequently addressing a specific narratee quite distinct from the reader, Rashid would seem maximally distant. Moreover, he refers to potential readers with some irony:

We Arabs find it natural to express our suffering, because we are peoples who have been oppressed and humiliated by time, which has appropriated everything we hold noble and sacred. Like other peoples, Greeks, Portuguese, Turks, etc., etc. (p. 10; emphasis original)

Extrait de ‛Azīzī al-sayyid Kawabata, paru au Japon

22We recall, as well, that his doubt about his compatriots’capacity to judge him motivated him to chose Kawabata as his narratee in the first place (p. 8). The narrator also boasts an impossible, and hence distancing, memory: “I can define for you the precise color of each day that I have lived. What is more, I can also define the precise color of each night that has passed over my eyes for the past fifty years” (p. 16). The only criterion that is unambiguously engaging is the narrator’s attitude toward the act of narration. He is always sincere — almost but never quite to the point of self-irony — and this engagement far outweighs the other four distancing characteristics. The intimacies he recounts — sexual infidelities in the family and a bout of childhood pinworms among them — emotionally engage the reader for their apparent frankness. His earnest, almost naïve exclamations encourage the reader to drop pride and pretence even if the comments are specifically addressed to Kawabata. Thus the reader feels included in a cultural “incrowd” when the narrator exclaims, “This is how they [the French] have breakfast!” (p. 32). Most important, the narrator struggles with the same problems that any postwar Lebanese reader faces — the simultaneous disgust with, and temptation of, opportunism, the guilt and sorrow for wartime destruction, the amibivalence toward the West. Rashid’s refreshing candor also engages the reader when, like a latter-day Augustine, he talks himself into a new subject position:

I promise you straightaway that I will not let you hear weeping, that I will not complain, that I will not expose my suffering to you, and that I will not grumble about the bad situation fate has brought me to, as if I were a young prince reduced by the world to an outcast. (p. 11)

23And we remain engaged as the topos of the Christian seeker fades into that of the modern prodigy whose warmth redeems his impertinence:

Now, Mr. Kawabata, I hope that you will forget everything else, and will pay attention only to what I am going to say, because I shall go straight to the heart of the matter — a matter that concerns you as much as it concerns me. (p. 11)

24Thus readers are encouraged to share the narrator’s subject position and, crucially, his reverence for Kawabata. In this way, the reader, wittingly or not, participates with the narrator in his quest to recover language from the grasp of opportunism. The engaging narrator, like Dante pilgrim leading the reader toward Beatrice, leads the reader toward Kawabata.

We, the Reader

  • 16 Peter Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of
    Interpretation, Columbus (...)

25The hypothetical intermediaries between the actual reader and the author such as the implied reader and the diegetic levels devoted to them, are intended to account for the mediated nature of text. Be that as it may, these intermediaries also function nefariously to anesthetize the reader by buffering the appeal from one person to another. Rabinowitz recognizes this when he stresses that the reading function he calls the “authorial audience” is sharply distinguished from the maximally anesthetized reading that used to be called “disinterested response”16. Yet at the same time Rabinowitz cannot bear to jettison an anesthetizing “distance” that allows the reader to maintain a morally incorrupt core while assuming a reader’s “role.” Thus his reader does not have to fully taste unpleasant subject positions. His “authorial audience” shields the actual reader:

26The authorial audience has knowledge and beliefs that may well be extrapersonal — that is, not shared by the actual individual reader (I, for instance, do not personally share the racist perspective of the authorial audience of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die). (p. 26; emphasis original)

27Literature, like sex, can be made safe but also boring and irrelevant. If we do not at some level of our real selves introject, say, Fleming’s racism, then we do not have to do the disturbing work of comparing the darker part of ourselves with that of the text. Instead, we can pretend we don’t have a speck of racism in us and read the text for… what? Theoretical or escapist import? Messages from the author become cleansed and our piety remains intact.

  • 17 Metalepsis is the crossing of presumably separate diegetic levels. By taking metalepsis for granted (...)
  • 18 James Phelen, op. cit., p. 139.

28Dear Mr. Kawabata’s constitutive metalepses eliminate buffering intermediaries between author and reader and expose the diegetic level model as a theoretical apparatus for keeping us from actually reading.17 Poised between an engaging narrator and a distant narratee, the reader’s investment exceeds what his status as “observer” implies. Even though the narrator never directly addresses the reader, his ethos engages the reader’s affections. Kawabata may be the linguistic addressee but the reader is the addressee of a simultaneous ethical appeal. If we recall the diegetic level model: “The author addresses actual readers (receivers); the implied author the implied reader (addressee); and the narrator the narratee (enunciatee),” we see here the narrator “crashing the gates” to address the reader18. This triangular relation whereby the narrator addresses both Kawabata and the reader simultaneously in linguistic and ethical modes across diegetic levels contradicts the notion that discrete senders and receivers exist at well-defined diegetic levels. To this extent Dear Mr. Kawabata forces the reader to do what good readers ought: to interiorize, not role play, various subject positions and modes of communication simultaneously. Thus whereas the diegetic level model can entertain multiple addressees only by postulating separate compartments to contain them, the narrative paradigm assumed in Dear Mr. Kawabata consists of numerous, simultaneously realized subject positions within author and reader at one diegetic level. Given therefore that multiparous, metaleptic messages are a constitutive and not an occasional feature of narrative, the rationale for postulating various diegetic levels evaporates — unless it is to maintain an ideological commitment to singular, unified subjectivity.

Language and Commitment

29The narrator’s aim of rescuing language from opportunism, depends on the triangulation of narrator-narratee-reader. In this account of a struggle against the opportunist within, as opposed to the shadow struggle at separate diegetic levels, each point is in tension with the other two. Kawabata embodies lofty projected aspirations but if the narrator did not simultaneously keep one eye on the reader, his discourse would soon wax hermetic. Conversely, without Kawabata, the address to the reader would degenerate into didacticism — yet another harangue from a member of the discredited intellectual class. As for the reader, one tends to accept Kawabata as paragon, perhaps at first out of playful complicity with the charming narrator, and later in earnest as the stakes in language become clear. Eventually, we are confronted with our own opportunism just as the narrator is.

30Thanks to triangulation with Kawabata and the reader, Rashid learns a few things about language and commitment that he did not learn by living through the events he recounts. Through Kawabata, the master artist of peerless rectitude, Rashid extends his youthful demystification of faith, clan and sect to the realm of language. At the same time the reader, who is never assumed to be a sympathizer with the narrator’s political views, keeps a watchful eye on Rashid’s capacity to make a fair account of events. Rashid first learns that language and its flower, doctrine, disarm moral discernment. At the beginning of the novel, he unabashedly revels in all manner of rhetorical excess:

Who else could walk along like this… when the war had scarcely yet shed its burdens? Notice this expression, Mr. Kawabata — “the war had shed its burdens”; you will see how many similar expressions of eternal beauty we have in Arabic. (p. 3; emphasis original)

31Yet an inexplicable sensation of a mouthful of ants spoils his pleasure in language (p. 6). By the end of his narrative, it becomes clear that the ants are a compensatory agony following the orgy of language and he eventually quits indulging in rhetorical excess. Finally, he realizes : “I smell in this eloquence the scent of blood, Mr. Kawabata” (p. 150). Why didn’t he smell it at the time of the events or during the intervening years ? Only in narrating his story to Kawabata, his narratee of high literary and ethical standards, does Rashid come to take a moral measure of rhetorical excess. It is as if the new subject position he assumes in order to address his narratee ironizes on the old one. And as the narrator smells blood in eloquence, so does the engaged reader.

32Rashid also learns that language often dupes those who ostensibly master it. Early in the novel, he recalls a magisterial command of language and the world :

We took words for our mounts, confident that we were riding history ! [...] The world, with all its constituent parts, was simply words turned into things. As soon as the word changed, the thing would change : water, earth, air, individuals, groups — in short, all living and inanimate creatures. (pp. 5-6)

33Thinking that they could use language to transform the world, Party intellectuals fail to reckon that its equivocality could turn against them. Thus Rashid’s commitment to fight against “bourgeois elements” (Christians) may at first seem congruent with Party doctrine — and even perhaps highly principled since he was raised a Christian — but gradually the signifiers slide in front of one another. “Communist” and “Muslim” become superimposed and Rashid is encouraged to take a Muslim name. At which point he recapitulates his father’s reactionary, sectarian struggle — but from the opposite side ! (p. 126)

34In telling the story of his involvement in the Party, Rashid gradually sees that language also transforms its users and admits : “We are not alone then in letting words run away with us wherever they will, or in running away with them wherever we will, while he, the poisonous being — history — just goes on” (p. 116). Thanks to the equivocality of language, a martyrdom motif in the novel seems increasingly like a running sick joke on oneself — the dearest investment in the ficklest of stocks, language. Kawabata is the touchstone ; the narrator’s desire to please Kawabata pushes him to exercise care in dealing with language. The reader — captivated by the engaging narrator — again follows Rashid toward Kawabata, acquiring an ever more sensitive grasp of language along the way.

35Finally, Rashid learns that the danger of language lurks in its role as a social constituent of private consciousness. It constantly infuses the social non-self into the self. Early in the novel, the narrator assumes a stable, centered self as evidenced by his fondness for didactic asides:

I will draw your attention in advance, Mr. Kawabata, to the fact that I may appear to switch from one subject to another while I am speaking. But I am confident that you will quickly understand the underlying reason behind each switch. The style will actually be an object of admiration on your part. (p. 4)

36These gentle directives, suffused with the narrator’s good will, place him in the center of a universe of innocent, non-contingent meaning. They also convey a sense of unselfconscious vulnerability. By the end of the novel, the double-edged nature of language has compromised that center of consciousness. Rashid regards his own comments with irony and eschews didacticism to the point of questioning the origin of his own desires and beliefs:

I suffer twice when the victim becomes an executioner, but I am certain… I am certain? (p. 160)

37The question added in italics puts into doubt both the certainty and the “I.” This inquiry into language and subjectivity eventually strips the narrator of identity and even of volition. Not only is self-expression impeded — a mouthful of ants and lips sewn tightly shut — even the slightest velleity is problematized: “It is just that if left to my own inclinations (to my own inclinations!) I would choose goat’s yoghurt rather than any other sort of yoghurt” (160; emphasis original). Here, the narrator is hyperconscious that to be socially interpellated is to be a plaything of language. Unable to muster a noncontingent subject position from which to voice a simple desire, he seems compelled to accept his very being as a shadow game of signifiers, leading inevitably to opportunism. Since no language corresponds to the self or to the world “as they are,” the opportunist reasons, why not use discourse expediently? Thus Rashid has come a long way in his narrative to reach a grasp of language that is still only roughly equivalent to that of his ex-friend.

38The narrator’s intellectual itinerary in this short novel has passed from a premodern belief system to a modern ideology of commitment to a post-structuralist suspicion of language and identity, yet still he cannot distinguish himself from the opportunist. He finally succeeds only as a result of the triangular relation with Kawabata and the reader. Their projected, virtual presence gives him points of reference which allow him to evaluate discourse. At one point, late in the novel, he declares:

It was true that what was happening in Lebanon was not a socialist revolution in the strict sense of the word. However, it was something close to that — a step of such enormous importance in the right direction that it could be regarded as a first step in the revolution. The part that our party, the Communist Party, was playing as the vanguard of the working class was shining proof of that. (p. 134)

39Immediately upon uttering this apologia in a vocabulary and tone reminiscent of ideological dogmatism, Rashid is self-chastened by a part of his mind that has assimilated what it perceives to be Kawabata’s judiciousness:

Mr. Kawabata, I am almost laughing at what I am telling you. It’s almost as if I were saying it with a touch of superiority. It’s as if the “blame” fell on them, them, the others, as if I alone were the victim and they were the executioners. (p. 134)

40The “them” may be his erstwhile opponents — Christians and other non-Communists — who are now his readers and who must exonerate him from his war-time guilt if he, and they, are going to be worthy of Kawabata. Only after succeeding in the quest to assume his readers’and Kawabata’s moral perspectives is he able to see the vanity of his victimhood. Thus Rashid finally forges an identity, paradoxically by renouncing autonomous centralized subjectivity and instead triangulating himself with the largely self-made beacons of Kawabata and his readers.

41The final pages of the novel ratify Rashid’s new identity. Fading in and out of consciousness under a pile of corpses, he imagines reconciliation with his erstwhile opponents, mother, father and village theologian. Having recognized himself in them as a fellow dupe of language, he is serene, understanding and even repentant in contrast to his youthful arrogance. At the same time, he also hears the ex-friend’s voice exclaiming: “Well done! You have been wounded and escaped, so now you can boast about your rich experience of life!” (p. 165). This time, instead of feeling himself double into the opportunist, Rashid recalls a scene that had not previously registered in his memory:

After I had passed him, Mr. Kawabata, on the Hamra Street pavement, I couldn’t stop myself looking back. I saw the ripped turn-up of one of his trouser legs covering the heel of his shoe, being dragged along the dirt of the pavement. (p. 165)

42This, the man who appeared to glide over shell craters in the sidewalk. As a result of adapting his narrative to Kawabata’s high standards, Rashid has acquired something of Kawabata’s acumen and can now see in his memory what had hitherto been invisible.

43Through Kawabata, the narrator (and the reader) trump the ex-friend’s cynicism. Rashid’s heightened awareness of language allows him to recover a sense of commitment consisting simply of the rigorous and critical use of language through triangulation with other subject positions. In displacing the discourse of opportunism, the narrative reinserts the human, conceived of relationally, at the center of consciousness. Nothing, of course, prevents this grasp of language from eventually becoming a reified dogma itself just as, in the past, family, clan and ideology had. Yet, whereas the previous demystifications depended on a binary opposition to the world, Rashid’s critical sense at the end of the novel is methodological as he stands poised in a triangular relation with the world (mother, father, village theologian, his readers) and impeccable Kawabata.

44We are thus in a position to respond to the last sentence of Warhol’s essay on the political role of the narratee:

  • 19 Warhol, “Réader”, op. cit., p. 69.

One task of the new narratology is to illuminate the ways those pairings [such as engaging and distancing narrators] oscillate within literary texts, to open up politically significant subtleties of rhetoric and see narrative discourse as a means of access to history19.

45Oscillations, yes, but not pairings. Dear Mr. Kawabata shows how the triangulation of narrator, narratee and reader can intervene in historical crisis through a play of engaging and distancing to reposition subjectivity in a stable relation with the world.

  • 20 John Maxwell Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Penguin, 1982.

46Not that narrative triangulation in itself is such an unusual notion, but it is perhaps particularly well suited to times of crisis such as that through which much of the developing world is passing where the breakdown of modern institutions forces a rethink of binary paradigms. In J.-M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians20, the narrator’s insistent intradiegetic appeals to the torturer and the tortured woman function to create a subject position for himself outside those of executioner and victim. At the beginning he is aware of his merely contingent distinction from the torturer; by the end, having also experienced victimhood, he has managed to occupy a corner of a subjective triangle distinct from those of executioner and victim. Whether triangulation can be further generalized to other texts or literatures is a question for further research.

47Triangulation in Dear Mr Kawabata distinguishes itself from Coetzee’s novel by, among other things, its extradiegetic narratee, but both novels display constantly shifting valences of engaging and distancing, which function to maintain a tension among each corner of the triangle. This oscillation stands in stark contrast to canonical examples of triangulation such as in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Augustine’s Confessions where Beatrice and God, respectively, are resolutely distant. The simultaneously distant and engaging narratee, which is distinct from both classical precendents and the modern narratees studied by Warhol, may therefore be among the features of a contemporary narrative of commitment, one that seems to be groping toward a sense of the human that avoids both essentialism and proteanism by positing a dynamic subject who is nonetheless stabilized relationally.

48Dear Mr. Barthes,

49The relational and self-reflexive nature of writing and reading means that the whirling codes that you so magisterially envisioned in S/Z are not disembodied. They connect us to other subjects and through them we can oscillate among subject positions, like the beautiful equilibrium of a benzene ring — separate but only by virtue of being connected! I get dizzy, Mr. Barthes, from atomic eloquence!


1 Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse. New York, Cornell UP, 1978. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, 1983. London, Routledge, 1992.

2 It is anything but unusual to read about how characters escape their author’s control. In the novel under question, for example: I, the Rashid who am addressing Mr. Kawabata, am not exactly Rashid the author. What links me to the author is the fact that he created me. I admit that I am largely subject to his control. However, this subjection is not total, but partial or relative. And because it is only partial or relative, I am quite different from him. (p. 9; ellipses original).

3 As an alternative to “narratee,” Peter Rabinowitz, a principal theorist of the “rhetorical turn” in narratology, uses the term, “narrative audience,” to describe “a role which the text forces the reader to take on” (p. 95). I trace the source of my problem with this otherwise enlightening work to the meaning of the word “role” which ranges from a “performer’s part” that can be assumed or rejected at will to a “function or position” that is either realized or not, but once assumed cannot be simply willed away, only ceased. In this essay, I try to show that the distinction is crucial. This essay rejects the first meaning of role and embraces the second. The first notion of role privileges a temporary, “epidermal” grasp of the narrative, the second an interiorized, functional grasp.

4 This is not to underestimate the sheer difficulty of actually overcoming self-projection in representing (from the author’s perspective) or interiorizing (from the reader’s perspective) another subjectivity.

5 Daif, Rashid al-. Dear Mr. Kawabata. Trans. Paul Starkey. Foreword by Margaret Drabble, London, Quartet, 1999. Trans. of ‘Azizi al-sayid Kawabata, Beirut, Mukhtarat, 1995. All references in this article are to the English translation.

6 Stefan G. Meyer, The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant, Albany, State U of New York P, 2001.

7 Linda Hucheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Rout-ledge, 1988, p. 7.

8 Tony Davies, Humanism, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 24.

9 Aghacy, Samira. “The Use of Autobiography in Rashid al-Daif’s Dear Mr. Kawabata.” Writing the Self: Autobiographical Writing in Modern Arabic Literature. Eds. Robin Ostle, Ed de Moor and Stefan Wild. London: Saqi 1998.217 –28. Samira Aghacy explores the network of autobiographical and intertextual references in this novel. Her analysis, revealing how the text blurs generic and formal boundaries for thematic purposes, dovetails with my own interest in showing how blurred diegetic levels achieve the rhetorical purpose of interpellating the reader as a subject of a civil society that does not yet exist.

10 Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du Mal: Essai sur les phénomènes extrêmes. Paris: Galilée, 1990, p. 14. Translations of Baudrillard are mine.

11 Robyn R. Warhol, “Toward a Theory of the Engaging Narrator: Earnest Interventions in Gaskell, Stowe, and Eliot.” PMLA. 101. 5 (1986), (pp. 811 – 818), p. 811.

12 I avoid using here the term, “implied reader,” the audience presupposed by the text. The term has ostensible value as a hypothetical entity corresponding to the cultural profile of the intended audience. Yet as such, the implied reader is otiose, not because it lacks a referent, but because, for the purposes of criticism, the reader is always hypothetical. In any communicative situation, even face-to-face conversation, the sender always presupposes a receiving subject that never fully corresponds to the actual receiver. As a cultural category, the implied reader (for example, in this novel, “the educated Lebanese citizen who lived through the war”) is needlessly coercive. By invoking such an implied reader we are saying that the cultural codes deployed in the text bear an a priori privileged relation to those of this category of readers. This yields a prescriptive reading that subordinates actual dialogic reading practices to cultural cliché. I do not deny culture-specific codes but they can vary so widely in any given text that it is more accurate to refer specifically to the codes and referents as they occur — the Lebanese or western readers, male readers, middle-class readers, etc. — rather than to the implied reader who occupies, to boot, an entire diegetic level to himself.

13 Robyn R. Warhol, “‘Reader, Can You Imagine? No, You Cannot’: The Narratee as Other in Harriet Jacobs’s Text.” Narrative.3. 1, 1995, (pp. 57 – 72), p. 69.

14 James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Columbus, Ohio State UP, 1996, p. 351.

15 Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, Ed. Jane P. Tompkins, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, (pp. 7 –25), p. 23.

16 Peter Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of
Interpretation, Columbus, Ohio State UP, 1987, p. 25.

17 Metalepsis is the crossing of presumably separate diegetic levels. By taking metalepsis for granted, Dear Mr. Kawabata shows that the whole theoretical edifice of diegetic levels is as necessary as the seven levels of heaven.

18 James Phelen, op. cit., p. 139.

19 Warhol, “Réader”, op. cit., p. 69.

20 John Maxwell Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians. London: Penguin, 1982.


Est professeur et directeur du programme Littérature-Monde à l’université Simon Fraser en Colombie-Britannique (Canada). Il est spécialiste des relations entre la culture littéraire et la pensée humaniste, avec un intérêt particulier pour la littérature arabe moderne. Parmi ses publications : Crisis and Memory : The Representation of Space in Modern Levantine Narrative, Ed. Ken Seigneurie, Wiesbaden, Reichert Verlag, 2003. Standing by the Ruins : Elegiac Humanism in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon, New York, Fordham University Press, 2011 ; « The Institution and the practice of Comparative Literature in Lebanon », Comparative Literature Studies, 51.3, 2014. Seigneurie est également rédacteur en chef du Companion to World Literature, un ouvrage de référence en cinq volumes sur la littérature-monde publié par Wiley-Blackwell, 2017 ; traduction en anglais de ‘Awdat al-almānī ila rushdihi (de Rachid El-Daïf) in What Makes a Man ? Sex Talk in Beirut and Berlin, Texas, University of Texas Press, 2015.

© Demopolis, 2016

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