An aspiring writer becomes embroiled in an international crime ring tucked inside Beirut’s publishing industry.
This seriocomic tale by veteran Lebanese novelist Douaihy (The American Quarter, 2017, etc.) centers on Farid, a young writer whose efforts to sell his work are rebuffed by a series of publishers. (“No one reads,” one tells him.) However, he gets his foot in the door at Karam Brothers Press, a century-old firm that offers him a job as a copy editor. Hoping for a break, he dutifully brings his notebook to the office every day—and the one night he leaves it there, the offices are visited by law enforcement and the notebook vanishes. Misunderstandings proceed to pile upon each other: The book is not in the hands of the police but the publisher’s flirtatious wife, Persephone, who’s so enchanted with the prose she has a single copy of the book printed on paper that Karam Brothers had been using to produce counterfeit Euros. Douaihy plainly enjoys tinkering with the themes of art vs. commerce that the plot sets up: Does writing have actual value in the world, he means to ask, and if so, how does it acquire it? There are dark-comedy, Kafkaesque scenes throughout—Farid’s opus perpetually slips from his possession, and he insists his work is poetry to the authorities “to diminish the value of his book.” But there’s a sense that the novel’s humor is underplayed by the author and perhaps weakened by the translation, which tends toward flat descriptions. Douaihy overstuffs the narrative with baroque details about the publisher’s history to suggest a century of criminality and duplicity. But in the book's finer moments, Farid’s anxiety shines through, and Douaihy writes beautifully about the particulars of Arabic grammar and calligraphy.
Not quite the comedy of errors it aspires to be but an intriguing portrait of Lebanese culture nonetheless.