Samir, a young German boy of Lebanese descent, adored his father Brahim who with his wife had escaped from war-torn Lebanon in 1982 to set up a life in Germany. His father delighted his young son by telling him bedtime stories veiled as fairy tales but really with secret roots of his own experiences of Lebanon. When Brahim disappeared one night after receiving a mysterious phone call, the emotional impact on his son is rendered palpable as the next morning the distraught boy discovers ‘his shoes still weren’t in their usual place in the hall, and his jacket was missing from its hook.’
The effect of his father’s disappearance on Samir as he grew up was that he became a loner. He could not hold down jobs and engaged in relationships with girls that did not last: ‘The thought of being abandoned makes me do things I hate myself for.’ His whole life became steeped in memories of his father: ‘here’s where he bought me ice cream… here’s where he lifted me up on his shoulder.’
There is a saving element nonetheless as Samir matures in his slow realisation of love towards Yasmin, the daughter of his father’s friend and fellow exile Hakim, and this is wonderfully conveyed. Samir had kept a box of letters he had written to Yasmin over the years but his shyness or lack of certainty in himself prevented him from posting them.
However, when Yasmin visits Samir’s room, she is dismayed to discover all the walls festooned with newspaper clippings about the war in Lebanon. She can’t tolerate this entrapment in the ‘vortex of the past’ and issues an ultimatum to Samir to live in the present. Knowing that the only way Samir can do that is to find out what happened to his father, she encourages him to go to Beirut and wishes him well in his quest.
A photograph of his father standing beside Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Christian Forces Libanaises and who was one of the key figures in the bloodshed in Lebanon up to 1982, was all Samir had to go on initially. Later the discovery of Brahim’s diary also gives him clues as do the stories his father had told him, as he witnesses their materialising into reality.
While Jarawan mostly maintains the tension of Samir’s search in slow teasing revelations, sometimes, however, the book can appear more factual than fictive and could perhaps have done with a bit of shortening. There is too much detail for example in meandering accounts of Beirut’s two-tier educational system which is not really intrinsic to the plot, and some descriptive accounts of that city smack a bit of a tourist guide in places.
And while Yasmin is a character who is very well drawn, less convincing is the portrayal of Samir’s younger sister Alina, who comes across as rather shadowy and insubstantial. Samir’s ‘throat constricting’ at the thought of her and later his leading her to the altar on her marriage day, rings a little hollow when one considers he had little to do with her upbringing. Also Jarawan’s attempt at humour while Samir is in Beirut with his taxi chauffeur Nabil, acting out roles of Philip Marlow or Sherlock Holmes, seem rather strained.
That said, the natural rhythm of English prose is brilliantly rendered in this excellent translation from the German by Sinéad Crowe and Rachel McNicholl. The book is constructed in short compelling chapters, fluctuating from present to past and for the most part driving the narrative forward, building up the suspense and keeping the reader on tenterhooks until its final heart-wrenching denouement.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 20/07/2019.