Novels of War, Identity, and Power | Fiction Roundup

Novels highlighting war, identity, and the power of literature in the Middle East and beyond.

Al-Khamis, Omaima. The Book Smuggler. Hoopoe: American Univ. of Cairo. Apr. 2021. 560p. tr. from Arabic by Sarah Enany. ISBN 9781617979989. pap. $18.95. F

Set in the early 1000s AD (early 400s AH), Saudi Arabian author Al-Khamis’s richly detailed work joins Mazid al-Hanafi, a self-professed seeker of knowledge, as he flees Baghdad with a chest full of philosophical and putatively heretical tomes that he carries for a mysterious freethinking group called the Voyagers. His caravan is headed toward Jerusalem, and though he would like to stop at Damascus, whose Syriac Catholic priests “left no book by the Greeks they encountered untranslated,” mercenaries near there are carving crosses in the backs of the unwary. Mazid’s world boils over with intellectual ferment and religious conflict. His grandfather, from whom he learned his love of books, was that rare imam to mix Sunni and Shiite phrases in his prayers, and as a young man in Baghdad, Mazid observes religious dissenters challenging the sheikh whose discussion groups he attends. When the blacksmith who introduced him to noncanonical ideas is murdered, Mazid hurriedly departs with his bounty, heading toward an unpredictable, if exciting, future. VERDICT Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, this deeply informed view of the medieval Islamic world will absorb readers of serious historical fiction, and knowledge lovers like Mazid.

 

Anastasiadou, Nektaria. A Recipe for Daphne. Hoopoe: American Univ. of Cairo. Feb. 2021. 362p. ISBN 9789774169793. $16.95. F

DEBUT Writing in English, Istanbul-based award winner Anastasiadou successfully blends romantic machinations among a group of Greek Orthodox Christians in Istanbul with a keen portrait of a community under siege. Venerable descendants of Greeks living in the city since at least the 300s CE, the Rums, as they are called, have dwindled considerably in number since the infamous 1955 pogrom targeting the city’s Greek minority. The little community is stirred up by the arrival of American-born Daphne, there to learn more about her Rum roots and study Turkish in preparation for a PhD in oral history. Immediately, both Fanis, a preening septuagenarian, and Kosmas, a pastry chef devoted to his mother, compete to win free-spirited Daphne, who enters into a clash-of-cultures waltz as she considers what she wants. Amid this lightheartedness, readers are suddenly slugged with the knowledge that Fanis lost his fiancée to suicide after she was raped during the pogrom, and his ongoing efforts to come to terms provide a dark counterpoint underscoring the Rums’ troubled outsider status. VERDICT Good reading for all.

 

redstarDaoud, Kamel. Zabor, or The Psalms. Other. Mar. 2021. 384p. tr. from French by Emma Ramadan. ISBN 9781635420142. pap. $17.99. F

After his scorching debut, The Meursault Investigation, Algerian novelist/journalist Daoud returns with something different, more lyrical and interior, yet equally ambitious. In a village touched by the hot winds of the Sahara, Zabor, as he calls himself (meaning “psalm” in Arabic), sustains the ailing by writing: “I delayed their deaths by describing, at length, the powerful eucalyptus trees and the patient nesting of storks on our minarets.” Throughout, Zabor is clearly celebrating literature as he meditates on his life and world, using “a foreign language that…preserved the prestige of the former colonizers,” yet which he appreciates, despite its associations, as a way of seeing anew. The narrative emerges as an affecting portrait of an outsider who defines his own meaning; book-obsessed, with his mother gone and his mocking father having abandoned him, Zabor is the village oddball—until he’s begged to save his dying father’s life by exercising his gift. VERDICT An original work for all book lovers.

 

redstarKhartash, Faysal. Roundabout of Death. New Vessel. May 2021. 176p. tr. from Arabic by Max Weiss. ISBN 9781939931924. pap. $16.95. F

“I tried to call my friends at the cafe, but nobody picked up…probably because the electricity was cut,” Jumaa says collectedly in the opening pages of Syrian author Khartash’s bleakly arresting look at Aleppo under siege. Slashed electricity, bombings, sniper attacks, burned-out houses, checkpoints (like the titular roundabout), and the killing of friends and relatives by combatants on both sides of the fighting—all are now routine, as readers are ushered into a landscape that feels surreal but couldn’t be more horrifically factual. A high school teacher currently unemployed because school has been suspended, Jumaa gathers regularly with friends at Joha’s Club, a sanctuary quickly reconstituted at the Island Cafe after the club’s destruction. There, Jumaa argues with his buddies, eyes the kiosk owners who have moved indoors, and muses, “Maybe today won’t be like all the others.” But every day is like all the rest, and the arrest of his son sends Jumaa on a fruitless mission to secure his family’s safety. VERDICT Heartbreaking in its matter-of-factness, Khartash’s work delivers a clear sense of life amid war in his book’s brief span.

 

redstarMbougar Sarr, Mohamed. Brotherhood. Europa. Jul. 2021. 208p. tr. from French by Alexia Trigo. ISBN 9781609456726. pap. $17. F

DEBUT In an unnamed African country, the North has been subsumed by the Brotherhood, an icily totalitarian group of Islamic fundamentalists who execute anyone they believe to have flouted the Qur’an—even killing all dogs, whom they declare to be satanic. The novel opens with the public execution of two young lovers whose mothers eventually reach out in tentative communication, but at its heart is a group of resisters who gather weekly at the Jambaar tavern. With tavern owner Père Badji, they include Malamine, a doctor whose wife is beaten by the Brotherhood, plus scholars and hospital workers he knows. To bear witness to the Brotherhood’s atrocities, they are preparing a journal, embodying a belief expressed throughout this critical debut, that language plays a key role in resistance to tyranny: “Probably the Brotherhood’s greatest victory [was] making people believe that communication is futile, and that the Brotherhood can speak on their behalf.” But what will happen if the journal is actually published? VERDICT Urgent and chilling reading from a multi-award–winning Senegalese author.

 

redstarZeniter, Alice. The Art of Losing. Farrar. May 2021. 448p. tr. from French by Frank Wynne. ISBN 9780374182304. $28. F

Both packed and propulsive, this stunning multigenerational tale originating in the Algerian War of Independence offers a necessary history lesson (without feeling like one), important context regarding the consequences of colonialism, and concise portraiture of the personal struggle for identity. In the 1950s, when Berber villagers in Algeria’s Kabylia region are caught between the French overlords and the emerging National Liberation Front, tightrope-walking efforts by leading resident Ali get him branded a traitor and force his family to flee to an unwelcoming France. Later, Ali’s granddaughter Naïma—the story’s catalyst—is exasperated when she’s lambasted for forgetting a country she’s never known, yet fearful of being lumped together with terrorists. After reluctantly traveling to Algeria on behalf of the art gallery where she works, Naïma realizes that her journey of self-discovery is just starting. Her discomfort as a woman in Algeria (“The Islamists win again,” says a friend there), paired with her observation that al-Qaeda and ISIS “want dark-skinned people to find life in Europe impossible, so that they will join them,” show how complicated that journey will be. VERDICT Highly recommended; from a multi-award–winning French novelist.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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