by Muhsin Al-Ramli
translated from the Arabic by Yasmeen S. Hanoosh
I didn’t like this little novel. If you don’t like Oprah picks, you probably won’t like it either. The jacket says it’s a satiric novel. I didn’t get that. It wasn’t funny. It was just depressing. There were a few scenes so gross they unfortunately stayed with me and I’m still trying to bleach them out of my mind. I didn’t like that the author chose to make the only gay character in the book a child molester and a pervert. All robins are birds, but…
My Objections and Such
The character I disliked the least was an artist called Quasim, which unfortunately reminded me of the servant Mash Quasim in the Iranian novel Dear Uncle Napoleon, which I loved. (In this Iran-Iraq war, Iran wins hands-down.) Anyway, this Quasim is a political liberal who is asked by his very conservative father to paint a portrait of the Leader. (Shades of the Dear Leader in North Korea. Ugh.) But he can’t. He tries, but he just can’t because he hates him so much.
His father, on the other hand, is so swayed by all the Leader’s rhetoric that he brags to everyone who will listen about his great-grandfather who shot “the English son-of-a-bitch” officer back before he was born, and calls everything that he likes “nationan”, his mispronunciation of “national”.
His sons are more clear-headed, with three of them deserting from the army. The artist is one, the pervert is another. The pervert, of course, is manipulative and manages to land on his feet, but the artist knows he isn’t going to survive this regime. It’s no place for honest men. And of course, it’s never been any place for women. The women in the story are depressingly powerless, fawning over their sons even when they behave in a reprehensible fashion.
The Broken Frame
The story starts out with the narrator living in Spain, and wondering where his cousin, another army deserter, has gone. But if this is a frame story, it’s a broken one, because we never learn what has happened to Mahmood. There is no end frame to the story.
“I left my country re-tracing Mahmood’s steps, searching for him, dreaming that we might do something and become men worthy of respect, so that afterward women–like my cousin Warda, who moved from husband to husband until she ended under Ismael the liar–would search for us.”
What a shame that she can’t be a woman worthy of respect on her own–no, she has to be attached to a man like an appendage. Ugh and triple ugh.
Not being an Iraqi, I found the references to the Leader and the war too oblique for me to get a good sense of place, or history, or current events. In fact, it took me a while to remember Saddam. I kept thinking of Ayatollahs.
What I Did Enjoy
The way that the artist, Quasim, ends up wearing the red, white, and green of the Iraqi flag from his painting–is this a hint that he is more of a patriot than his brother who sheds his blood in the war? The savage mockery of Iraqi leaders when the parents of martyred soldiers receive telegrams of “Congratulations”, and the families of deserters are charged for the bullets it costs to shoot them.
The hedgehog needle that lodges in the throat of the patriarch and can never be removed, and how it starts bleeding (like a stigmata–wrong religion, obviously, but I thought of it) when his sons are killed.
The man writes well, or at least is translated competently, but I can’t recommend this book.