On the Literature of Terrorism

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Illustration by Maelle Doliveux

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, May 3

THE WOMAN IN the photograph doesn’t look frightened, even though she has reason to be; on the other side of the crumbling wall behind her, a small boy is pointing a big gun at someone just outside the frame. Something in her posture, however, the way she cranes her head to look at the boy, suggests impatience more than anything else. She’s on her way home from shopping, it seems, and carrying a large purse and a pale, heavy object — a ­cauliflower? She’s standing on rubble, but her clean white sandals and beautiful bare legs gleam.

This is a favorite image of mine, a snapshot of unknown provenance, supposedly taken during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, 15 years of fighting, that pulverized much of the capital, leaving 150,000 people dead and more than 17,000 missing. It was a war that unleashed sustained and inventive terror, a war fought with child soldiers, and car bombs — 3,641 of them killed some 4,000 people. It is the preoccupation of the alarmingly prolific Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, whose novels are finally being translated into English, by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. The latest, the dreamlike and unhinged CONFESSIONS (New Directions, paper, $14.95), was published this spring.

What the sea was to Melville, terror is to Rabee Jaber. He knows its smell, its subtlest moods, its allure and tedium — how the sight of a child soldier, say, can provoke more annoyance than fear. In 18 novels written in about as many years, he’s traced how terror has remade his country by way of displacement and forced migration through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the present day. “The Mehlis Report,” his first novel to appear in English, was published in Lebanon in 2005, the very year it covers, and follows the aftershocks of the assassination of the prime minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing, which prompted an investigation by the United Nations led by a German judge, Detlev Mehlis. “Confessions,” a slender book with a high body count, is set in the middle of the civil war, in the thick of kidnappings and ambushes on refugee camps, when a child’s bag of marbles turns out to be, horrifyingly, a cache of human eyes.

Of course, the figure of the terrorist has long been irresistible to novelists — and dangerously so. Some of the attention is rivalrous; as Don DeLillo argued, the terrorist has in some ways supplanted the writer. “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the writer in “Mao II” says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” After Sept. 11, Western writers flocked to the topic with touching and clumsy avidity in a bid, it seemed, for relevance. In the effort to understand just what creates a terrorist (then as now the dominant question when it comes to terrorism), couldn’t the novelist — that specialist in the dark, cobwebby corners of the soul, that diagnostician of how the private life intertwines with the public — prove himself useful? But with a few notable exceptions like “Secret Son,” by Laila Lalami, and the richly researched “Harbor,” by Lorraine Adams, there was a series of ­belly flops from our major writers. The fictional terrorist remained a creation of both condescension and envy, a tissue of projection, anxiety and stereotype informed by little curiosity or context. John Updike infamously relied on “The Koran for Dummies” while writing his 2006 ­novel “Terrorist,” which imagined an American high school student of Irish and Egyptian descent who becomes a suicide bomber.

What makes Jaber so unusual is his indifference to terrorists. He’s not curious about what impels them — he rarely bothers to even name them; they’re figures of vague dread rather than glamour. It’s a perspective he seems to share with Karan Mahajan, the author of “The Association of Small Bombs,” a new and singularly intelligent novel about a 1996 bombing in New Delhi. In an interview with his publishers, Mahajan (who grew up in India and now lives in Texas) expressed exasperation with much Western fiction that has treated terrorism as some kind of performance art. “Conrad saw that terrorism was just another mode of pettiness, of stupidity, of ­expression,” he said. “We shouldn’t unnecessarily exalt terrorists because of their recent successes.” In Mahajan’s book — as well as a handful of others to emerge out of India, Pakistan and the Middle East, including the work of Mohammed Hanif and Bilal Tanweer — terrorism is neither aestheticized nor shorn of its relationship to history or other kinds of violence. “The war will never end, because it’s inside us,” the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury wrote in his 2012 book “Broken Mirrors” (translated into English last year). Brutality is revealed as boring, repetitive, frequently ridiculous: A man in “The ­Mehlis Report” survives the tremendous blast of a car bombing only to be killed by a shard “smaller than a lentil,” which pierces his heart. It’s survival, however tenuous — especially when tenuous — that proves intriguing.

Which is to say that I suspect Jaber, like the unknown photographer I admire, would be less interested in the boy and his gun than in the woman and her thick, cropped hair, the sunflower print on her dress; it is she who dominates the frame, she who commands our curiosity. Is it a cauliflower she’s holding? Is she hiding from the small boy with the gun — or waiting for him? Jaber is interested in what it means to live in and with fear, not for one season but for a whole generation, two generations, three. He’s interested in the bones of Beirut, a city that has had to rebuild itself repeatedly after being razed in war in 140 B.C., then devastated by the earthquake of 551, then again during the civil war, a city whose name derives from the Canaanite be’erot — “wells” — the water table that still sustains it. He’s interested in what lies beneath, what nourishes us without our knowing, how the sight of a parked car can set off panic — “It wasn’t a car anymore. It was a ghoul,” the narrator of “The Mehlis Report” frets. “Was it my time to die? Would the ghoul explode and splatter me all over the street?” And yet: “Beirut is tense. Everyone is skittish. But the steam still rises from the teacups. And the cake smells sweet.”

This attention to endurance, to life that goes on because it must go on, takes a particular form. It’s not so much realism cut with fantasy as fiction poised between the land of the living and the dead. The dead watch the living on closed-circuit television, call their relatives on the telephone and obsessively revise their memoirs in “The Mehlis Report.” In “Confessions,” the living feel they might be phantoms themselves. The narrator cannot understand why everyone has always reacted to his face with such horror, why he provokes his sisters to tears, his brother to violence and the neighbors to gawking. Gradually he learns the truth: He is the replacement for a child who died. He even bears his name. The man he calls his father has murdered his real family and kidnapped him.

The city itself is a kind of ghostly palimpsest. “There is the Beirut of the dead superimposed on the Beirut of the living,” Jaber’s translator has said of “The Mehlis Report,” which takes the form of aimless walks as the protagonist, an architect, clinically evaluates passing women and takes stock of his city as it finally rebuilds after the civil war. He is both comforted and repelled by the ­changes: The skyscrapers promise growth, but he rues each missing mulberry and olive tree; the old movie theater, now a burnt-out husk, its charred seats looking like rows of tombstones; a dried-up river that was once filled with pink-and-white fish. “This is a recurring scene in Jaber’s fiction: A character stops in front of one of Beirut’s modern buildings and tries to remember what used to stand there,” Robyn Creswell wrote in The New York Review of Books. “Classical poetics in Arabic calls this scene the ­nasib: A nomad-poet halts at an abandoned desert campsite and, while figuratively sifting the ashes through his fingers, recalls the good times he once had there.”

But this act of remembering is, for Jaber, as much nostalgic temptation as ethical obligation. It is the only, if doomed, path to dignity; after all, we are designed to forget — in fact, the Arabic words for “human” and “to forget” are very close. In Jaber’s work only the dead, the underworld’s meticulous memoirists, keep perfect records.

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