In Which the Narrator Doesn’t Even Know His Own Story: Confessions
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The narrator of Confessions, Maroun, has never been in control of his own story. Before he was old enough to remember, his family’s van was pulled over and everyone inside was gunned down, caught just on the wrong side of the demarcation line in Beirut during the incessant civil wars in Lebanon, which stretched from the late ’70s through the ’80s. One of the gunmen discovers a little boy that miraculously survived the assault, and having lost his own son of a similar age recently, the gunman decides to kidnap and raise the boy as part of his family. Unable to ignore the strange looks and foreign feelings the boy engenders in his new home among his new family, there is not much for him to do but pay attention and wait until the secrets of his life are divulged to him.
This is the first way memory shapes the story; since Maroun doesn’t have a direct recollection of his life’s defining moment, or of his life at all before that moment, memory is doubted, and in turn, interrogated:
“How accurate are my memories? Remembering is difficult, you can’t imagine how difficult this is for me. I remember myself and I don’t. It’s like I’m remembering a life someone else has lived … Listen: In the first days of winter, when the cold sets in and the rains begin to fall, I always feel a pain in my chest. Every year, every single year. Often the pain in my chest is so sharp that I have to gasp for air. What do these small things reveal?”
Visceral and incomplete, his lost memories prevent him from fully understanding and overcoming the confusion and pain he experiences. Thus, the narrator and his memories give the novel its personality: flawed and erratic, earnest and striving for answers. Despite the fact that he doesn’t sell himself as qualified to tell his own story, Maroun consistently asserts the need for control, saying, “It’s important to tell you the story in an orderly fashion, but I keep getting accosted, distracted. I feel powerless, I feel… The images flood in and I’m powerless to stop them. But I’ll try.”
For the telling of his story, readers are silent observers as Maroun is interviewed about his past. While this gives him that chance to remember, to own his story, there are other consequences that readers must suffer with Maroun along the way. It prevents readers from understanding more about his families, both new and old, and their pasts. The conversational style also forces the story to follow the whims of the narrator’s memory, and events flow erratically as his mind connects anecdote to anecdote, until one is demanding control as much as Maroun is aspiring for it. But this strategy also enables added perspective through Maroun’s interactions with his questioner, and these moments provide some of the novel’s most pointed statements. For example, this definitive line comes very early in the story with Maroun addressing his questioner: “So much time has passed and yet, even now, I still don’t know how to tell my story.” It is therapeutic, the interview a grasp at catharsis — Maroun’s struggle is to tell his own story, visceral and incomplete as it may be.
What he does remember throughout his recollections are the blunt realities of war — as much as his being kidnapped as a child can be said to define him, it is the indefinite civil war going on in his hometown of Achrafieh, Beirut, that defines the conditions of that kidnapping and everything else in his upbringing. Many specifics within his memory relate to his seeing a burnt corpse, or the family waiting out a round of shellings in the living room while Maroun wonders where his father (and eventually older brother) disappears to all day and all night.
He also documents some of his relationships with his new family and community, who are accepting if still alienating; unsurprisingly, it’s the alienating aspects that garner the spotlight in Maroun’s memories. He grew up attracting strange looks and questions from their church and neighborhood regulars. Before he knows where he comes from, he can sense his hidden origins being condemned. He is told that those on the opposite side of the demarcation line, in West Beirut, are “beasts and monsters” by his teacher, that they are scary and they smell. He is not singled out in the classroom, but the more stoic church crowd flusters him thoroughly:
“People were turning around, showing me their faces … They never wore those unfathomable masks while looking at my sisters, and when my big brother used to come to church with us I never saw their faces change like that when they looked at him. Was I imagining things? I went back home feeling weak … I was young — I didn’t think like that back then, but now, when I remember the young boy I was, that’s how I remember him. Now I know him better than he used to know himself.”
He notices the same searching stares at home too:
“During the Hundred Days War, when the shelling was so intense that we were confined to the living room day and night, I’d see [Ilya] staring at me with that same strange look in his eyes: as if he wanted to peer into my depths. No, not my depths, I don’t know how to say what I’m trying to say. No, it was as if he wanted to see something that he couldn’t see — as if I were hiding another body within my own, a body beyond my body.”
Without the comforts of a family and home and neighborhood that feel welcoming and familiar, Maroun’s memories consist of the warfare that dictated his surroundings — where he could go, who he was surrounded by — and the silent judgment he seemed to attract constantly. That’s what he remembers with certainty, and that’s what he has to turn to in searching his past for explanations once he finally learns of his origins. At one point, lamenting the imperfections of memory, Maroun says, “What you remember overpowers you, it beats you down into the earth again and again”; it’s no wonder why Maroun would be eager for the catharsis and the possibility of control that Jaber is offering. The result is a book as unique as its subject matter — messy, incomplete, at times unreliable, yet as haunting and alluring as memories themselves.