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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Dear Mr Kawabata

by
Rashid al-Daif


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Dear Mr Kawabata



Title: Dear Mr Kawabata
Author: Rashid al-Daif
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 169 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Dear Mr Kawabata - US
Dear Mr Kawabata - UK
Dear Mr Kawabata - Canada
Cher monsieur Kawabata - France
Lieber Herr Kawabata - Deutschland
  • Arabic title: عزيزي السيد كواباتا
  • Translated by Paul Starkey
  • With a Foreword by Margaret Drabble

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting approach, revealing look at life in Lebanon

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 Shawkat M. Toorawa


  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Kawabata, El-Daif plumbs the past, but unlike Kawabata, he does not indulge in its pleasures. He chooses, rather, to explore the effect of the past - notably village life (family expectations, the power of vendetta, the lure of the city, the allure of rebelliousness) and adult engagement (early socialism, negation of religion, the burden of camaraderie and comraderie) -- on the unfolding of events in Lebanon's chaotic postwar present. Throughout, he returns to the questions of Christian-Muslim relations, of "Arabness," and the intransigence of "tradition" in the face of scientific certainty, modernity, and literacy." - Shawkat M. Toorawa, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dear Mr Kawabata is a sort of epistolary monologue. Nominally addressed to Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari, the narrator recounts his life and thoughts -- and poses the occasional (more or less rhetorical) question.
       "PS I hope that you may be able to spare the time to reply" is the final thought, but given that Kawabata died (by his own hand) some two decades before these 'letters' are written the narrator's hopes can't be too high. But then much here operates on a metaphysical plane, and if the narrator's life isn't exactly flashing by, he certainly feels compelled to recount it -- and eventually discovers himself to be closer to Kawabata's own state than he might care for.
       Early on already he emphasises:

     There is nothing left, therefore -- you will agree with me about this -- except memory, I mean my personal memory.
       Dear Mr Kawabata is an exercise in memory, in preserving and relating and passing on specific experiences and realisations and ideas -- and, of course, about the impossibility of doing so. It's also no accident that he's 'writing' to a dead Japanese man, rather than, say, telling his stories to the kids gathered underneath the old cedar .....
       The narrator is Rashid -- though: "I, the Rashid who am addressing Mr Kawabata, am not exactly Rashid the author." But both are Maronite Lebanese, born in 1945. Rashid's parents are illiterate and uneducated, and the culture he grows up in is one where blood-revenge is still commonplace -- so much so that his clan eventually tells Rashid to stay away from his home-village, because he's "easy prey" in the ongoing feud.
       Rashid does attend school. Learning that, for example, the earth is round is among the greatest and most influential impressions of his youth, a not necessarily welcome incontrovertible proof striking against the very foundations of the still prevalent old beliefs The conflict between tradition and modernity is a large part of Rashid's life, though much of the focus is on the emotional impact of this rather than the intellectual consequences. His father's domineering ways (which includes forcing Rashid to read to him) and his mother's unhappiness about her marriage (which resulted in ten births) are two major concerns for the boy and then young man, as his understanding of both changes over the years.
       Education is important to Rashid -- and ultimately proves a means of escape -- but it is only the early lessons (attaining literacy, learning the earth is round) that are life-changing. Much that comes later is almost glossed over, most notably when he gets his doctorate in France, an experience he mentions in little more than passing.
       Politics are far more significant, especially insofar as his Maronite heritage and identity leave him an outsider in the struggle he gets involved in (Marxist, party member, would-be resistance fighter). As an Arab but not a Muslim he is not embraced in the struggle both in Lebanon and in the larger regional conflict around the Palestinians. Eventually he turns away from active politics -- and goes so far as to write: "Mr Kawabata, I hate history as I hate death, and meaninglessness".
       And:
Lebanon is one of those countries that produces nothing but its own periodic tragedies.
       It's an interesting life- (and country-) story, from the one-room house in which Rashid grew up (and the mysteries of sex under those conditions ...) to the political struggles and the divisiveness of religion even where the fundamental aims seem to be the same.
       The choice of Kawabata as the person to address this narrative to is an interesting one. Though educated, in part, in France Rashid does not try to place his history in that much more familiar context -- or any Western one. Brecht is a rare influence he admits to, but it is the Japanese master -- and the apolitical The Master of Go -- that, at this stage in his life, are what he is drawn to. He can't leave politics completely out of it, but with the West politically compromised Rashid seems to hold out some hope that an Oriental perspective might be different in this regard, too:
by the way, Mr Kawabata, why did the Western media portray us as if we were some strange specimens of humanity ? Why this malice, why this blindness on the part of people who defend themselves from erach other with atomic bombs ? How did you look at us in Japan ?
       It's as though he believes there the slate might be blank enough for judgement to be objective -- impossible in the West.
       The focus on certain details and the almost willful ignoring of what others might consider significant gives an odd feel to the book. It is an existential text, an individual questioning identity and his role in the universe (and in the political struggle, and in his family) -- a personal struggle that is, nevertheless, surprisingly far-reaching as it covers nearly half a century of Lebanese history and certainly conveys the feel of the troubled country (and many of the reasons for it being troubled) very well.
       Engaging -- both simply as a life-story as well as as an attempt to fathom the Lebanese condition (admittedly from a Maronite perspective) -- Dear Mr Kawabata is an intriguing and worthwhile read.

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Links:

Dear Mr Kawabata: Reviews: Rashid al-Daif: Other books by Rachid al-Daif under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Lebanese author Rashid al-Daif (رشيد الضعيف) was born in 1945.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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