Chalem, in his debut novella, looks at the role and limitations of art.
Elie Melach is a well-known, Egyptian-born Parisian artist who’s drifting quickly toward old age. He’s most famous for his black-and-purple painting The Children of Rwanda. The work was well-reviewed and sold for a healthy sum, but Melach feels somehow disgusted with his celebrated masterpiece. He now finds it difficult to produce anything, and he sets aside his canvases, still blank, thinking that they can’t be improved by his brush strokes. One day, he goes early to lunch and uncharacteristically orders a whiskey. Perhaps he’s just in a bad mood, but a creeping doubt settles over his mind, blocking out the myriad colors that make up his painter’s alphabet, and causing him to imagine only black. The conflicts of the world weigh heavily on him: Does any of his work matter, as he wallows in cafes while innocents die in a dozen wars around the globe? The newest turmoil is in Lebanon, where his fellow Jews are abetting massacres in Sabra and Shatila; he wonders: What is his part in that, his proper response? Must every artist chose between significance and happiness, or is the very notion of a choice the delusion of the creative mind? He tries to decide whether he is highly moral, tragically empathetic or just depressed. Family members, friends, employees and strangers wander in and out of Melach’s day, informing and reorienting his positions as either a witness or an active participant in life. Throughout the novel, the main character drifts about in a fine existential crisis, but it’s one that’s never boring. Chalem handles Melach with humor, compassion and openness that evokes the work of such authors as John Banville, Percival Everett and the late Alberto Moravia. His prose is a perfect mirror of his protagonist: unrushed, observant, musing, and belonging to a slightly earlier time. It pulls readers through its pages like a balloon on a string, leaving them buoyantly unaware of whatever inevitability awaits. This is a short book, but one that achieves grandeur through its smallness: The novella is the perfect medium for the story, and it makes a fine addition to the current renaissance of the format. Although this is Chalem’s debut publication, he’s a mature talent, and readers should take notice.
A fine first novel from a writer with affecting wisdom.