Friday, February 20, 2009

Beirut Blues, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Beirut Blues, by Hanan al-Shaykh
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 Beirut, I am forced to wonder whether Rushdie read it at all, or simply contributed a kind blurb sight unseen, and thereby unknowingly condemned me to read it in his place.

The absence of Beirut is the beginning of the problem. The book is nominally a series of long, rambling letters written by a secular, educated, upper-class woman from Beirut to friends, lovers, family, the land, the war, and Billie Holliday. Very, very slowly a story of sorts unfolds and we learn small, disconnected things about the writer, Asmahan. None of the story has anything much to do with the war in Beirut. By the third letter, Asmahan, her grandmother, and their servant are rescued from Beirut by someone named Ali, who I think is Asmahan's uncle. It is unclear, as are most of the relations of people in the novel, and indeed as are their motivations, their histories, their personalities, and their relative positions in time and space. The structure of the letters is fragmentary: sometimes there are stories in which both the writer and the recipient participated (in which Asmahan always seems to be a passive, long-suffering, ignored sort of figure...were I to be the recipient of these letters, I would find this habit infuriatingly passive-aggressive), sometimes there are vague memories of trips and family histories, sometimes there are vague reflections on relationships and the narrator's life. It is therefore difficult to exactly follow the actual story, but as near as I could tell, the rest of it took place on Asmahan's grandparents' land in rural Lebanon.

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 Beirut in a tank, she frets that the boys driving the tank are not attracted enough to her. She complains that her friends who have fled Beirut don't write to her enough. She is worried not about the war, but about whether she can find her grandfather a new mistress who will be easier for her to control. She spends a lot of time playing hard-to-get with a visiting foreign doctor. Much of the book's appeal (and indeed much of the reason I started reading it) was because the author and her narrator are very ostentatiously Not Typical Arab Women. But instead they seem to be a typical caricature of a woman, as written by an unexamined male chauvinist who is convinced that women are fragile, self-obsessed, vain, flightly, simple creatures who are incapable of comprehending the world outside themselves.

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 Paris of the Middle East, and handed a beacon of secular tolerance over to the perpetually fratricidal Parties of God. I came away from page 260 feeling not only like I had been more affected by reading Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem than the narrator was by actually living through the war, but that maybe she needed to read that book too to find out that the war was really rather unpleasant.

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.

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