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THE PENGUIN'S SONG by Hassan Daoud


by Hassan Daoud ; translated by Marilyn Booth

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-87286-623-2
Publisher: City Lights

Daoud’s claustrophobic novel hauntingly conveys one family’s isolation after being relocated during the Lebanese civil war. 

Displaced by war, the family at the center of the story has left its home in the old city of Beirut for a space more sheltered from the ongoing combat. The narrator, a young man, writes of days spent in isolation reading. He silently observes the interactions of the people around him and ponders his own body, described at one point as “a sickly white mass.” His father expounds at length on the virtues of watchmaking, while his mother leaves the apartment frequently, prompting questions each time about whether she will return. The narrator lusts over a neighbor, and his gaze is described in visceral, discomfortingly intimate terms—as is his way of watching the world in general. Though his bibliophily is presented more clinically, he entertains notions of peeling cataracts from his father’s eyes in one memorably squirm-inducing passage. None of the characters are named, and the events play out like memories, sometimes in a linear fashion, sometimes following more thematic paths. These are characters forced to dwell in the past, their futures uncertain. Together with the single location and the sense of displacement, these elements combine to create a sense of harrowing isolation. This is a slow-burning novel of characters slowly discovering their inner natures, be they impotent, stifled or predatory. While the dreamlike tension can occasionally frustrate, Daoud's evocation of history as it is experienced is excellent. His characters live through momentous events, but their struggles to survive land them in a kind of purgatory.

A novel that defies expectations as it summons up the displacement and dehumanization that can come with war.