English translation, 1995, 371 pp.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must immediately admit that I stopped reading Beirut Blues on page 260. Nothing particularly infuriating or objectionable takes place on page 260, nor indeed nothing noteworthy in any sense. Nothing noteworthy took place on the preceding 259 pages either, and when I flipped ahead and read pages 312-317, nothing noteworthy happened their either. In fact, they easily could have been torn out and switched with pages 187-192 or 78-83. I had originally stopped on page 217, demoralized at the idea of another 150 pages of this thing, but skipped ahead and saw that there would be a section actually about the Lebanese Civil War, and so decided to persevere at least that far, in the hope that the book may finally get around to being about something. It did not, and with the arrival of several books by José Saramago in the mail, the opportunity cost of continuing to muddle through Beirut Blues vaulted well over my literary budget constraint. It is rare for me to not finish a book: in this case I rather wish I hadn't bothered starting it.
Beirut Blues is an epistolary novel by Hanan al-Shaykh, who is occasionally billed as the foremost female writer in Arabic. I selected this book for that reason, and also because it bears a glowing recommendation from Salman Rushdie on its front cover. Since I consider Rushdie a magnificent writer, I easily misled myself into syllogizing that anyone he thinks is a magnificent writer must be so. Considering the recommendation refers to "an unforgettable portrait of a broken city," despite the fact that only about fifty pages of the novel actually take place in
The absence of
And here Asmahan lost me. She is not among the wretched of the earth, the damaged, the dispossessed, the ruined, the marginalized, or even the substantially inconvenienced. Her family is a part of the wealthy, landed aristocracy, and the war impacts them only when a local militia occupies their fruit orchard for a while. This must be the only book ever written in Arabic about a war which paints the Israelis in a thoroughly positive light. The bulk of what little drama there is concerns itself not with the enormous human cost of the war, but with the cheerful infidelity of Asmahan's grandfather.
To a certain degree there is a place for literature which clings to the mundane in order to illustrate incomprehensible suffering. I have on my shelf a fascinating book called Intimacy and Terror, which is a collection of excerpts from private diaries kept by a cross-section of people during the darkest years of Stalin's reign. Many of them are shockingly banal, but they are contrasted with voices of protest and outrage, so instead of oblivious mundanity, we realize that the diarists are clinging desperately to any sense of normality they can find, rather than be cast adrift in such an endless sea of misery. Hanan al-Shaykh's narrator gives no such impression. When her uncle comes to rescue her in
If these things listed above are the sorts of things that give her the titular Blues, one has to reflect what sort of book she would have written if her entire family had been senselessly pulped by a car bomb. The war she is not writing about lasted for decades, involved at least three foreign interventions, killed at least 100,000 people, wounded another 100,000, and displaced close to a million. It may have irrevocably destroyed a shining, cosmopolitan city which was once called the
It is difficult to say how much of this is Hanan al-Shayk's fault. I kept thinking of a line from Martin Amis' Money (spoken, no less, by a character named Martin Amis) about how the difference between the author and the narrator is measured by how much disgust the former has for the latter. Asmahan talks a lot about herself: she "likes books and wine," she is largely irreligious, she likes Billie Holliday, and her breasts seem to see a lot of traffic. I got no sense of distance, let alone distaste from the author, and the narrator's frivolity and solipsism are so prevalent that they must either be the entire point of the book, or the defined limits of the author's mind.
All of this seems to be compounded by poor translation. Al-Shaykh writes only in Arabic, but works closely with her Scottish translator, Catherine Cobham, who has translated at least four of her books. Beirut Blues even begins with a note that there have been substantive changes from the original Arabic, but that they were artistic improvements and will be kept in the next Arabic edition. Presumably these artistic improvements do not include the sloppy shifts between present and past tenses, between first, second, and third person narration, the meandering lack of structure, or the unclear relation of people, times, events, and places.
I very much wanted to like this book. Several of al-Shaykh's other novels sound interesting, especially the controversial The Story of Zahra which made her reputation. But after the experience of Beirut Blues, it is unlikely that I will return to her work as long as a single book by José Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martin Amis, George Orwell, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, or P.G. Wodehouse goes unread by me.