A young boy is adopted by the man who gunned down his family in this searing novel about the Lebanese civil war.
Maroun was 4 or 5 years old when his family’s car was stopped at the demarcation line dividing East and West Beirut. The men who stopped the car opened fire, and the boy was the only survivor. All of this is recounted within the first 20 pages of the new novel by Jaber (The Mehlis Report, 2013, etc.), winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It’s what happens next that consumes the bulk of this slim volume. Maroun was adopted by one of those men who had recently lost a son of the same age to the wartime violence. Now a young man, Maroun has only just discovered the truth about his origins, which his brother confesses to him while they wait for their father to endure surgery. Maroun had grown up as one of the family’s own. Over the years, he’d noticed the strange looks that his mother and sisters would periodically give him, but that had been the extent of his knowledge. Now, he retraces his early memories and suspicions in an attempt to come to terms with his own identity. He’s desperate to parse his actual childhood from an imagined one. After describing one early memory, he asks, “Am I remembering it or imagining it? And how can I tell the difference? Memory’s a massive reservoir, it’s a deep well, it’s got layers upon layers upon layers—what does it bury, and what doesn’t it?” Jaber’s narrative follows the obsessive circuit of Maroun’s thoughts, which is circular and repetitive, doubling back on itself out of doubt and uncertainty. Still, “I’m trying,” he says, “to the best of my ability, to stick to a logical order. It’s important to have some command over the order of things: that’s important.” Maroun’s voice has the compulsive urgency of someone who has long kept silent and cannot stop speaking now that he has finally begun. He’s hyperarticulate in a panicked sort of way, but this turns out to be unfortunate, since it obscures other, more delicate questions. Did he blame his father for what he’d done? Did he blame his siblings, his mother? As brave and as brutal as Jaber’s novel is, it somehow fails to comprehend the scope of its own magnitude.
A novel that explores questions of identity, memory, and blame and leaves many of those questions unanswered.