War-wracked Beirut in the days just before the Israeli invasion is the setting for this bitter novel, the author’s debut, about the death of friendship and the death of a small nation.
Most Americans have probably forgotten the rotten mess engendered by sectarian hatred in Lebanon in the 1980s, but they will quickly recognize the carnage and savagery laid on in this harsh small story—it’s just like today’s war, and just as awful. Bassam, the narrator, and George, nicknamed De Niro, are two young Christians practicing some not-very-serious crime and trying to get dates in their Christian neighborhood, where the water has largely stopped running and the electricity is fitful. Bassam’s father is dead and George’s father vanished early on, and the neighborhood men have been sucked into the sectarian militias that are engaged in constant battle for control of the little country where Muslims and Christians used to coexist in commercial harmony. George is the more serious of the two, a little older, a little more thoughtful and a little more mysterious. Bassam, even when the bombs and shells are dropping, has his mind on the possibilities of sex, either with George’s sexy aunt Nabila or with Rana, a young neighborhood beauty. As the war continues, so does the disintegration of their old life. Bassam’s mother dies, forcing him to lurch painfully into adulthood. And it becomes clear that George has become entangled with the local warlord and will be ever more involved in the bloody civil war. The political and personal situation gets worse when the Israelis invade and George becomes a fatal part of the war’s darkest hour. In the book’s final third, Bassam flees to Paris with orders from Nabila to find George’s father, a search that will reveal new tragedies.
Sad and discouraging for anyone holding out hope for that part of the world.